Labour leadership candidates clash over antisemitism as Jess Phillips accuses rivals of failing to speak out
‘I don’t remember some of the people here being in that particular room or being in those particular fights,’ says Phillips
Ms Phillips, a prominent backbencher, said Labour had “lost the moral high ground” on its battle with racism and took a veiled swipe at fellow candidates in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet over the party’s perceived inaction.
In the first leadership hustings, Ms Phillips said the next leader must have spoken out against antisemitism – in comments aimed at Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry and Sir Keir Starmer, who were all in the Labour leader’s top team.
Asked about Labour’s handling of antisemitism, Ms Phillips said: “The Labour Party needs a leader who has spoken out against antisemitism, and other forms of harassment in fact.
“When others were keeping quiet and [as] somebody who was in the room, struggling for an independent system – lots and lots of meetings – I have to say I don’t remember some of the people here being in that particular room or being in those particular fights.”
Ms Phillips added: “Jewish people were scared of Labour winning the election. That’s deeply serious.”
Ms Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, hit back at the accusations, saying she has always been clear that antisemitism “undermines us as a party”.
Vowing to kick out antisemites, she said: “What the Israeli government is doing at the moment is completely unacceptable. But that is not the fault of the Jews.
“And once you start linking those two things together, you misunderstand.”
Frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said he had repeatedly spoken out against antisemitism and said he would only rest when everyone who left Labour in protest felt they could rejoin.
He said: “I have spoken out. I’ve spoken out on the radio, on the media. I’ve spoken out about rule changes I thought we should adopt about the international definition of antisemitism.
“I’ve also made those arguments in shadow cabinet as Emily and others have done as well.”
Ms Long-Bailey, who spoke first, said Labour could “never let that level of mistrust happen again”.
She said complaints were not handled quickly enough and vowed to work with the Jewish community to “reset” the relationship.
Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, said she was “ashamed of where our party has ended up” and said it had given the “green light” to antisemites by failing to deal with high-profile complaints.
All the candidates have signed up to a series of pledges by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
At the hustings in Liverpool, the candidates took part in quick-fire questioning on issues ranging from Brexit and climate change, to media coverage and the party’s manifesto in the last election.
All the candidates sought to draw a line under the infighting that has dominated the party in recent years, with Ms Long-Bailey saying divided parties did not win elections
She said: “It’s not acceptable for any of our members to call the members a cult. It’s not acceptable for any of our members to tell people to eff off and go and join the Tories.”
“Name calling has been horrendous” for all parts of the party, said Ms Phillips, while Sir Keir also said there had been “too much division”.
On Brexit, Ms Thornberry said “let’s not kid ourselves” that Boris Johnson will secure a Brexit deal by December – as she cited her record as shadow foreign secretary, where she exposed the PM “as the worst foreign secretary ever”.
In a dig at her rivals, Ms Thornberry said the next leader must be someone “who has frankly been on the right side all along”.
Ms Nandy said Labour had failed by allowing the Tories to simplify the Brexit debate, while Sir Keir said it was time to stop defining people by Brexit as it could tear the party apart for another 10 years.
The latest YouGov poll said 63 per cent of Labour members would back the shadow Brexit secretary in the final round, ahead of Ms Long-Bailey on 37 per cent, once other candidates have been eliminated.
The candidates must win the backing of 5 per cent of constituency parties or affiliated trade unions and societies to make it on to the ballot paper for members.
Deputy leader candidates Rosena Allin-Khan, Dawn Butler, Richard Burgon, Ian Murray and Angela Rayner also answered questions in a separate hustings.