UK Labour leadership candidates spar over party’s approach to anti-Semitism

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The first hustings of the UK Labour leadership battle saw contenders clash over the way the party has dealt with anti-Semitism.

Backbencher Jess Phillips and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry appeared to spar during the hustings as part of the race to replace Jeremy Corbyn.

Birmingham Yardley MP Ms Phillips took a swipe at some her fellow contenders for “keeping quiet” over anti-Semitism in the party.

She said: “The Labour Party needs a leader who has spoken out against anti-Semitism, and other forms of harassment in fact.

“When others were keeping quiet and 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.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(PA Graphics)</figcaption>
(PA Graphics)

Ms Phillips said that the Labour Party’s handling of anti-Semitism had meant it had lost the “moral high ground” to fight racism.

She added: “Jewish people were scared of Labour winning the election.

“That’s deeply serious.

“The Labour Party has now lost the credibility to handle its own complaints system.

“We have lost the moral high ground to fight racism in this country because of the way we have handled anti-Semitism.”

In a direct response to Ms Phillips, Ms Thornberry insisted that she had always been firm in standing-up against racism.

She said that the Labour Party should kick out anti-Semites in the same way “Oswald Mosley was kicked out of Liverpool”.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Sir Keir Starmer (Danny Lawson/PA)</figcaption>
Sir Keir Starmer (Danny Lawson/PA)

Ms Thornberry said: “I tell you what Jess (Phillips), I have always been clear about it and I always will because it’s unacceptable, it undermines us as a party and undermines our soul.

“What we should be doing is kicking out these anti-Semites in the same way Oswald Mosley was kicked out of Liverpool in 1937.”

Shadow Brexit secretary and early front-runner in the leadership campaign, Keir Starmer, said there had been “too much division” in the party, adding: “We are unstoppable when we are united.”

Speaking at a Fabian Society conference in London after the hustings on Saturday, Mr Starmer said that if he was elected Labour leader, he would take personal responsibility for dealing with anti-Semitism in the party.

He said: “If you’re anti-Semitic you shouldn’t be in the Labour Party and it is as simple as that.

“What I would do as leader of the Labour Party is take personal responsibility and a personal lead on this.

“Not put it somewhere else, but make it my responsibility in our party.”

All five candidates for the top job issued pleas for unity at the start of the Liverpool event after last month’s humiliation at the polls.

Ms Thornberry suggested all the candidates were seeking “the worst job in the world”.

She said: “Being leader of the Labour Party in opposition is, quite frankly, the worst job in the world.

“That’s what we are applying for.

“In the end we have to wade through an awful lot of shit.”

Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey told the audience that divided parties do not win elections.

Backbencher Lisa Nandy said the Conservatives were not really interested in the former Labour seats they had won in Northern England and Wales in the general election.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Jess Phillips (Danny Lawson/PA)</figcaption>
Jess Phillips (Danny Lawson/PA)

She said: “The Tories are talking about investing in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats.

“But, what they don’t understand is that this (vote) was a clamour for power, agency, and control, and they will never give it to people.

“Labour must.”

Some 500 Labour members were at the event and most of those approached afterwards said there was no “knock-out” blow by any of the candidates.

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