Interview'There will be more people expelled in the coming years'

UK Labour Party is pro-Israel again, says chair of its visiting friendship group

After antisemitism drove Jews away in Corbyn era, MP Steve McCabe says opposition party has returned to traditional Israel-backing stance, but is concerned about the new coalition

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

UK Labour Friends of Israel chairman Steve McCabe (L) gives a book signed by party leader Keir Starmer to President Isaac Herzog, February 6, 2023. (Labour Friends of Israel)
UK Labour Friends of Israel chairman Steve McCabe (L) gives a book signed by party leader Keir Starmer to President Isaac Herzog, February 6, 2023. (Labour Friends of Israel)

As their party continues to combat antisemitism within its ranks, a group of Labour Party lawmakers embarked on a five-day visit to Israel this week to reaffirm the left-wing opposition party’s traditional support for the Jewish state.

“The Labour Party has returned to its traditional position as being a very good friend and supporter of the State of Israel,” MP Steve McCabe, Labour Friends of Israel chairman, told The Times of Israel on a rainy Tuesday morning in Jerusalem. “A Keir Starmer-led Labour government will put that as a very high priority, and the people of Israel will be able to rely on it.”

Since succeeding Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in April 2020, Starmer has sought to reshape the main British opposition party’s public image and uproot antisemitic elements. Labour under Corbyn’s leadership was accused of allowing antisemitism to fester within its ranks and found guilty by a state watchdog of antisemitic discrimination, and Corbyn himself was accused of antisemitism. He was suspended from the party in October 2020 for refusing to retract his claim that the scale of antisemitism within Labour under his leadership has been overstated by opponents.

“One of the things that became really obvious during the 2019 election was that ordinary voters in the UK, people who were not Jewish, were just as appalled as what Corbyn had done,” reflected McCabe.

One of Britain’s two main parties, Labour has lost four straight elections, most recently a 2019 drubbing by the Conservatives that was its worst performance since the 1930s.

British Labour Party politician, David Lammy, second right, joins members of the Jewish community holding a protest against Britain’s opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism in the Labour party, outside the British Houses of Parliament in London, March 26, 2018. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

“I became the chair of Labour Friends of Israel after the 2019 election, largely because I was horrified by the damage that Corbyn had done to the Labour Party and the way he’d allowed antisemitism to flourish,” said McCabe in his Glasgow brogue. “And I wanted to do something meaningful and constructive to change it.”

He said that he has seen Jewish voters start to move back to the party since Starmer took the reins and began his campaign against antisemitism in the party.

Members of the Labour Party visit Yad Vashem, February 6, 2023. (Labour Friends of Israel)

Part of that effort is leading the delegation, LFI’s largest in over a decade. Most of the participants are in Israel for the first time. They have met President Isaac Herzog, Labor Party chief Merav Michaeli, tech leaders, and visited the Gaza border among other stops.

The group also sat with National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi in Jerusalem on Monday.

McCabe said the group has concerns “about some elements” of the new Benjamin Netanyahu government, and that he has expressed them directly to Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely.

“It’s hard to see how some figures in this government should be in any government,” he continued,”or that someone like [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir should be in charge of policing, given his own past. He strikes me as the sort of person I don’t particularly want to have any great association with.”

McCabe also aired his worries about the government’s proposed judicial reforms: “It does sound like a grab for power and a diminution of the natural checks and balances that are part of sustaining a democratic society. I would say I have a degree of anxiety about that.”

It’s hard to see how some figures in this government should be in any government.

The Netanyahu coalition is pushing a series of sweeping reforms that would dramatically increase government control over the judiciary. The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies, and direct opposition from the president of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, and the government’s senior legal adviser, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.

Students and teachers protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on February 5, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“I guess you have got to judge by what ultimately happens,” mused McCabe.

Speaking before heading to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority officials, McCabe did not spare the PA from criticism.

“The Palestinian Authority have got kind of blocked in terms of thinking about positive steps or peace initiatives,” said McCabe, a veteran MP and former social worker.

He added that it doesn’t seem like Netanyahu’s government is “really putting peace at the top of its agenda,” but laid the lion’s share of blame at the feet of the Palestinians.

“Until there is some absolutely fundamental gesture from the Palestinian Authority about guaranteeing Israel’s security, it’s hard to see exactly how you make big steps forward,” he argued.

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers his keynote address to delegates, at the annual Labour Party conference, in Liverpool, north west England, on September 27, 2022. (Oli Scarff/AFP)

Despite the lack of any movement toward a peace deal, McCabe said he has plenty to say to left-wing Brits about the importance of supporting the Israel-UK relationship.

“I tell people that what we’ve got in Israel is a really vibrant, high tech economy that can teach us a lot about medical advances, medical technology, and green energy — which is a big part of Labor’s proposed industrial strategy, with a green energy conversion, and this could lead to jobs and new opportunities in the UK,” he explained. “There’s a lot to learn and a lot to benefit from.”

Though the Labour Party has been out of power since 2010, McCabe said it can still support expanding ties with Israel. He noted Labour’s backing for free trade talks between the countries, and pushing the government to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group.

In the meantime, he and the parliamentarians in the LFI caucus said they are committed to ensuring that Labour is fighting antisemitism within its party and within British society.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, on stage at the launch of the party’s General Election manifesto at Birmingham City University, England, November 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

“This isn’t something that you can tick your box and say job done,” he said. “I mean the reality is that those kinds of views, that kind of ugly antisemitic racism, it’s always there. It’s there in all institutions and in all organizations, and Labour is no exception.”

“There needs to be a constant education program to help people understand exactly what antisemitism is, and to understand why support for the Palestinians is one thing, but it cannot be coupled with outright hostility to Israel,” McCabe continued.

He added that those who don’t accept the party’s principles shouldn’t be in it. “There will be more people who will be expelled in the coming years, because there are some people who either can’t or choose not to,” he predicted.

Most Popular
read more: