LONDON — An eighth lawmaker quit Britain’s Labour Party over its handling of anti-Semitism and Brexit, boosting a new breakaway group from the UK’s main opposition party.
Joan Ryan, who headed the Labour Friends of Israel, announced late Tuesday that after four decades in the party she was leaving Labour to sit with the newly formed Independent Group in Parliament.
Ryan, the MP for Enfield North in London, said the party had become “infected with the scourge of anti-Jewish racism” under left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinians.
“I cannot remain a member of the Labour party while this requires me to suggest that I believe Jeremy Corbyn – a man who has presided over the culture of anti-Jewish racism and hatred of Israel that now afflicts my former party – is fit to be prime minister of this country. He is not,” she wrote.
Ryan, who is not Jewish, had chaired Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) since June 2015. She had long expressed concerns about Corbyn.
While Corbyn “has sat down and talked with terrorists,” Ryan told The Times of Israel in an extensive interview in November, he has rarely if ever met with elected Israeli Zionist politicians. “How can he say he’s about peace?” she asked, also noting that he refused to so much as utter the word “Israel” when he spoke at an LFI reception in 2015. “It just seems so inexplicable.”
Ryan said then that while Corbyn claimed to stand for traditional Labour values, including “human rights, social justice, democracy, equality, fairness,” that wasn’t the case when it came to his words and deeds on Israel-Palestine. She warned that he was causing “hurt and anguish and anger” in the UK Jewish community and beyond, and said he owed the Jewish community an apology.
Ryan was battling efforts by hard left activists to oust her as an MP because of her LFI role; in September, she narrowly lost a non-binding but symbolic no-confidence motion. At the time, however, the MP vowed not to be driven out of Labour. “You don’t go into politics to put a tin hat on and get under the table when the going gets tough,” she told The Times of Israel. “I’ve been in the Labour Party a very long time. I joined precisely because of [the need to battle] racism, inequality, anti-Semitism.”
Seven Labour legislators quit Monday, accusing Corbyn of failing to stamp out anti-Semitism in the party and of mounting a weak opposition to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the European Union.
The breakaway lawmakers hope to gain members from among disgruntled pro-Europeans in both the Labour and Conservative parties.
The original seven announced Monday they were breaking away and forming an independent group.
“This has been a very difficult, painful but necessary decision,” one of the MPs, Luciana Berger, said at a hastily arranged press conference in London, calling the party “institutionally anti-Semitic.”
“I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation,” she added.
Earlier this month Berger, who is Jewish, faced a no confidence vote, later canceled, by local party members who said she was “continuously criticizing” leader Jeremy Corbyn amid the ongoing row over anti-Semitism in the party.
The lawmakers who made the announcement are Berger, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Anne Coffey.
“The Labour party has turned its back on the British public, their hopes and ambitions,” Shuker said, referring to the Brexit controversy.
Many Labour lawmakers are unhappy with the party’s direction under Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grassroots backing.
They accuse him of mounting a weak opposition to the Conservative government’s plans for leaving the European Union, and of failing to stamp out a vein of anti-Jewish prejudice in the party.
The quitters are only a fraction of Labour’s 256 lawmakers. But this is the biggest split in the party since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.
The 7 MPs who have resigned from the #Labour Party:
Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Gavin Shuker, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey
No mention yet of whether they will stand down and face their electorates in by-elections.. pic.twitter.com/Ph79c8CrVw
— James Holland (@James7Holland) February 18, 2019
Labour lawmakers last week sent an angry letter to Corbyn over what they described as a lackluster response from the party’s leadership to lawmakers’ calls for transparency over its handling of anti-Semitism complaints.
Earlier this month, lawmakers unanimously passed a motion demanding that party leaders provide detailed data in writing by February 11 on the handling of complaints about anti-Semitism, with some MPs accusing top officials in the party of covering up the figures.
The internal party motion passed at Labour’s weekly parliamentary meeting in the lower house, escalating internal rifts over the issue. The motion called “on the party leadership to adequately tackle cases of anti-Semitism, as a failure to do so seriously risks anti-Semitism in the party appearing normalized and the party seeming to be institutionally anti-Semitic.”
MPs also demanded that party officials such as General Secretary Jennie Formby or leader Jeremy Corbyn attend the meeting to answer questions about the data.
But the seven MPs said in their letter last week that no one came to speak to them at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. An email containing just nine months’ worth of information was sent to lawmakers by Formby 90 minutes before the meeting, they said.
“The failure to respect the request for this simple information does nothing to dispel the accusation that Labour is an institutionally antisemitic organisation,” the seven MPs charged.
Some lawmakers also flatly rejected the figures, saying they don’t believe them.
In her email, Formby offered details on the extent of anti-Semitism complaints between April 2018 and January 2019, saying 673 complaints were received by party institutions about Labour members. (An additional 433 complaints were revealed to be against individuals who were not actually members of the party.)
Of these, 211 were deemed sufficiently serious to warrant an investigation, leading to 96 Labour party members being immediately suspended. In another 44 cases, members left the party voluntarily once challenged with evidence of anti-Semitism. Another 12 were expelled from the party by the National Constitutional Committee, the only body with the authority to do so.
Several hundred others were either given one-off written warnings or their cases were dropped over lack of evidence. In all, just over 300 individuals were investigated or suspended for anti-Semitic actions in the nine months covered by the figures.
The row in the party comes amid rising levels of reported anti-Semitic incidents in Britain and a spike in Jewish concern over anti-Semitism throughout Europe.
Last week, British Jewry’s watchdog and security group, the Community Security Trust (CST), reported that 2018 had seen the third consecutive record high for reported anti-Semitic incidents in the UK. At 1,652 incidents nationwide, it was 16 percent higher than the previous year and the highest number since CST began keeping track in 1984.
Meanwhile, an EU report published in December found some 90% of Jews across Europe felt that anti-Semitism had increased where they live.