The head of the largest labor union in the UK and Ireland, and a close ally of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, told a former UK cabinet minister of Jewish descent to go “count his gold,” in comments widely seen as anti-Semitic.
Under Corbyn, the Labour party was constantly under fire for anti-Semitism within its ranks, and the comments by Len McCluskey sparked scathing criticism from Jewish political leaders.
In a BBC Newsnight interview broadcast on Monday, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite the Union, was discussing Labour’s new leadership under Keir Starmer, who took over the party in April.
McCluskey was asked in the interview about Peter Mandelson, a former Labour cabinet minister for Tony Blair who has praised Starmer’s leadership of Labour. Mandelson’s father was Jewish and his grandfather founded the Harrow United Synagogue, according to the UK’s Jewish Chronicle.
“I would suggest that Peter just goes into a room and counts his gold and not worry about what’s happening in the Labour Party. Leave that to those of us that are interested in ordinary working people,” McCluskey said.
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McCluskey issued an apology on Twitter following the interview.
“Before this gets out of hand, let me say language is important and I apologize to Peter Mandelson and anyone else if mine has caused hurt,” he said.
Unite the Union, commonly called Unite, says it is the UK and Ireland’s largest trade union with some 1.4 million members.
McCluskey’s statements were roundly criticized by Jewish political figures in the UK.
Labour Against Antisemitism said in a statement: “It is unsurprising but still shocking to hear one of the most senior figures in the British Labour movement seemingly reveal such a poisonous view.”
Mike Katz, the head of the UK’s Jewish Labour Movement, said in response that he was “pretty disgusted” by the comments.
“But I’d guess he’s best placed to know what’s anti-Semitic. Just like he’s got more experience of winning general elections than Mandelson,” he said sarcastically. Labour under Corbyn saw a crushing electoral defeat in December 2019 elections.
Jewish Labour lawmaker Margaret Hodge said, “The ignorance with which these tropes are used by McCluskey and others shows just how pervasive and unchallenged anti-Semitism is on the hard Left.”
Euan Philipps, spokesperson for Labour Against Antisemitism, said: “When Len suggested Peter Mandelson (who has Jewish heritage) was ‘counting his gold’ he seemingly reproduced an anti-Semitic trope about wealthy Jews. It’s gross.”
Marie van der Zyl, head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the organization was “deeply concerned that the leader of one of the most powerful trade unions in this country would go on television and use an anti-Semitic trope dating back to medieval times.”
“This serves to demonstrate just how deeply the language of anti-Semitism has become rooted among those who would no doubt describe themselves as being anti-racist.”
Unite said the comments were not anti-Semitic.
“The ordinary meaning of the statement made by Mr McCluskey is one of his belief that in recent years Mr Mandelson has had more interest in increasing his own wealth than in fighting for social justice for working-class people,” Unite said in a statement, according to UK media. “The suggestion of any anti-Semitic meaning to the commentary would be ludicrous.”
Corbyn resigned as head of Labour after its defeat in the December 2019 elections.
After taking the party’s reins, Starmer apologized to the Jewish community for anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, calling it a “stain” and pledging to stamp it out.
“We have to face the future with honesty,” he said. “On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry… I have seen the grief that [anti-Semitism] brought to so many Jewish communities.
His wife, Victoria Alexander, comes from a Jewish background, and through her he has extended family living in Tel Aviv.
Starmer told the Jewish Chronicle, “If the definition of ‘Zionist’ is someone who believes in the state of Israel, in that sense I’m a Zionist.”
Jewish groups accused Corbyn of allowing a massive rise in anti-Semitism within the ranks of the party that was once considered the natural home of British Jewry. Thousands of cases of alleged hate speech against Jews have been recorded within Labour since Corbyn was elected to lead the party.
British Jews deserted the party in droves because they believed that Labour had become institutionally anti-Semitic under Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian politician who took over the party in 2015, with widespread accusations that Corbyn himself was an anti-Semite — something he denied.
Much of the fear of Corbyn was spurred by revelations about his past record that emerged after he became Labour leader. These included him describing Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”; defending an anti-Semitic mural in East London; and a seeming willingness to associate with alleged anti-Semites, terrorists and Holocaust-deniers.
Corby has denied any wrongdoing, saying he dealt with the issue appropriately.
Starmer has won plaudits for trying to win back Jewish members who left in droves as Corbyn and his top team turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism that was rampant in the party.
In 2017, McCluskey dismissed claims of anti-Semitism in Labour as a ploy to bring down Corbyn.
“I believe it was mood music that was created by people who were trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn,” McCluskey said at the time.