Two ex-Labour politicians describe heart-wrenching decisions to quit party

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JLM One Day Conference

Two ex-Labour politicians describe heart-wrenching decisions to quit party

Joan Ryan tells the JLM One Day Conference 'the moment I knew there was no turning back was when Luciana Berger said that in her view the party was institutionally antisemitic'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Mike Gapes and Joan Ryan
Mike Gapes and Joan Ryan

Two of Israel’s greatest friends in the last parliament, the former Labour MPs Mike Gapes and Joan Ryan, passionately addressed their decision to leave the Labour Party last year, as antisemitism appeared to overwhelm left-wing politics.

In discussion with the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, Adrian Cohen, Mr Gapes and Ms Ryan were panellists in one of the opening sessions of this year’s Jewish Labour Movement conference. More than 100 people attended this session alone, numbers mirrored in each of the morning’s on-line meetings.

Ms Ryan, the former MP for Enfield North and parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said leaving Labour, where she had been a member for 40 years, was “a huge wrench.” But, she said, she did not believe in “tribalism”, and noted that “you can’t be loyal to something you feel is so wrong. I couldn’t ask anyone to put Jeremy Corbyn in No 10. I wanted to say he was not fit to be prime minister, leader of the party, or an MP, and I didn’t want to be in a position where I appeared to be speaking out about not voting for Corbyn because I had been kicked out.

“The moment I knew there was no turning back was when Luciana Berger, in a press conference with Mike [Gapes], said that in her view the party was institutionally antisemitic. I thought I couldn’t see a Jewish Labour MP driven out of the party by antisemitism, and stand by and let that happen. That was the trigger”. She had made it clear, she said, that she believed Corbyn “should be expelled — he has a very long charge sheet.”

Mr Gapes, an MP since 1992 and a member of Labour for 50 years, said he had felt “tainted” by the 2017 election campaign and decided that he could not fight another election under Jeremy Corbyn.

Mr Gapes, who is writing a book about his experience, said he believed that dealing with far-Left antisemitism and anti-Zionism was “the defining fight for [new Labour leader] Keir Starmer and the party”.

Ms Ryan added that while she welcomed Sir Keir’s pledge to tear antisemitism out by the roots, “I would like to see him say more about those roots. The ideological base of hatred of Zionism goes back to the UN resolution of 1975 that Zionism is racism, even though it was eventually overturned. The obsessive hatred of Israel is fundamental to the roots of antisemitism, and is a fault line running through the Labour Party, You can’t fight antisemitism unless you also fight anti-Zionism”.

Neither politician, who both left Labour to help form a new, independent political party, would say what would bring them back into Labour, if at all. Ms Ryan, paying tribute to the work of the Jewish Labour Movement, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, and Labour Against Antisemitism, insisted: “I am not the litmus test for this. The way the Jewish community feel about the Labour Party is the litmus test, not me”.

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