Among the many depressing moments on election night was the result from Hendon. Number three seat on Labour’s target list, it required only a 0.2 per cent swing for Andrew Dismore, the highly respected former MP who represented the seat prior to 2010, to win it back. Despite an heroic effort, Labour failed to take back the seat. A similar sad story was repeated elsewhere, including Finchley and Golders Green and Harrow East – seats that voted Labour during the Blair years but stayed solidly blue on polling day.
Like the rest of the electorate, Britain’s Jews will have had a range of reasons for voting as they did in May. Nonetheless, it’s now beyond question that, as a poll showing 69 per cent of Jews intended to vote Tory warned just before the election, something has gone badly wrong with Labour’s once-warm relationship with the community.
Tonight all four Labour leadership candidates will take part in a hustings organised by Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and the Jewish Labour Movement. We hope that it marks the start of rebuilding the bridges between Labour and the Jewish community.
Over the past five years, many in the community felt that Labour’s leadership showed a certain carelessness towards its concerns and sensitivities. The rhetoric deployed by the party’s frontbench during last summer’s Gaza war, for instance, seemed one-sided with little empathy with the fears of ordinary Israelis as their homes were under attack from Hamas rockets.
This was compounded by its decision to whip its MPs to support the motion calling for Britain to unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state. To many normally loyal Jewish Labour voters this signalled that their party had abandoned the notion that Britain should be an honest broker for a two-state solution, working with both sides to bring about the negotiated settlement upon which a viable Palestinian state and a safe and secure Israel rests.
However, it was less events in the Middle East, but those far closer to home which did most damage to the party’s support among Jewish voters: the Labour Leadership’s inexplicable three month near silence in the wake of the wave of anti-Semitic attacks which hit the community last summer.
It is time now for Labour to reflect and reach out. On Israel, we have to couple our support for a two-state solution with a recognition that all sides are going to have to make concessions to realise it. Yes, that means pressure on Israel on issues such as illegal settlements. But it also means holding the Palestinian Authority to account: to stop the pernicious anti-Semitic incitement peddled by its media, and, above all, make crystal clear it accepts Israel’s right to exist.
Labour should also work to support the progressive voices within Israeli and Palestinian societies calling for a two-state solution, and encourage their ongoing efforts to secure it, as well working with the trade unions and civic society groups who do so much to promote the dialogue and coexistence which will ultimately underpin any lasting agreement.
Finally, Gaza has been the scene of three wars in the last five years. The only long-term solution is one that couples the disarmament of Hamas with the lifting of the blockade by Israel and Egypt and a package of sustained international investment to revitalise the Gazan economy, thereby giving its people real opportunities and hope for the future. At the same time, we need to highlight and campaign against the gross abuses of human rights perpetrated by Hamas against the Palestinian people. (Read LFI’s ‘Stop the War’ campaign for more information on how to join this effort).
The hustings also provides an opportunity for one of the candidates to clarify some of his past remarks about Hamas and Hezbollah. Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that it was his “pleasure” and “honour” to welcome “our friends from Hezbollah and our friends from Hamas” to parliament, together with his vocal support for the Islamist leader, Raed Salah – a man British judges ruled had given a sermon invoking the anti-Semitic blood libel – has caused a great deal of understandable concern.
Labour also needs to match words with deeds. There have to be consequences for those frontbenchers and parliamentarians who – contrary to party policy – advocate boycotts and disinvestment or use language which serves to delegitimise Israel.
Rebuilding trust won’t be easy but tonight we make a start.
Jennifer Gerber is Director of LFI