Senior Labour figures have insisted the party is committed to driving out anti-Semitism after Britain’s Chief Rabbi suggested Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to tackle the issue made him unfit for high office.
In an incendiary intervention, Ephraim Mirvis said Labour’s handling of the issue, which has dogged the party under Mr Corbyn’s leadership, was “incompatible” with British values.
He said the overwhelming majority of Britain’s Jews were “gripped with anxiety” ahead of the General Election on December 12, warning “the very soul of our nation is at stake”.
Allies of Mr Corbyn acknowledged that Mr Mirvis had raised a serious issue, but insisted the numbers of those involved represented a “tiny fraction” of the party’s membership.
However Mr Mirvis received high-profile backing from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, who said his intervention reflected the alarm felt by many in the Jewish community.
“That the Chief Rabbi should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews,” he said.
Writing in The Times, Mr Mirvis said “a new poison – sanctioned from the top” had taken root in the Labour Party.
He added: “How complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition have to be to be considered unfit for office?”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald accepted there were issues that had to be dealt with within the party but he strongly rejected the Chief Rabbi’s characterisation of Mr Corbyn.
“It is a serious intervention. It is a reminder of the hurt that has been caused to the Jewish community by the instances of anti-Semitism within the party and broader than that,” he told Sky News.
“I really do take issue with the conclusions the Chief Rabbi has raised about the character and nature of the party and indeed Jeremy Corbyn who has devoted his life to fight racism of all kinds.
“People come into the Labour Party to fight racism in all its manifestations and it is upsetting, to say the least, to find ourselves trying to deal with these small number of incidents.
“We are a huge movement and this represents a tiny fraction of our membership.
“Nevertheless it is serious and it has to be dealt with head on.”
Mr McDonald took issue with a claim by Mr Mirvis there were at least 130 outstanding cases of anti-Semitism before the party with “thousands more” having been reported, saying the figures were “erroneous”.
However the Chief Rabbi’s comments were echoed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews vice president Amanda Bowman who claimed matters would only become worse if Labour was in government.
“Jew-baiters are being protected by Labour’s opaque and factional disciplinary process, while Jewish MPs are being hounded out of the party with not a word of protest from Jeremy Corbyn,” she said.
“This is not just a Jewish issue. What starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews.
“If this combination of disdain, injustice, incompetence and malevolence is how Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party treats a serious issue like anti-Jewish racism, voters are entitled to question how it will handle the other big issues that face the country.”
The controversy erupted as Mr Corbyn prepared to unveil the party’s race and faith manifesto – including a commitment to make the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is currently investigating Labour anti-Semitism, “truly independent”.
The move was condemned by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAS) – which made the original complaint against the party – saying that it was “sinister in the extreme” that Labour was now seeking to restructure the body that was investigating them.
“The commission is defending British Jews by independently acting to investigate and stop unlawful anti-Semitic discrimination, harassment and victimisation, ” said CAS chief executive Gideon Falter.
“This sinister proposal by the Labour Party to restructure the Commission should be immediately retracted.”
Meanwhile, former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine has urged people to vote for the Liberal Democrats or for ex-Tory MPs now standing as independents, as the best way to secure a second referendum on Brexit.
“There is no way (Lib Dem leader) Jo Swinson is going to be prime minister, we all know that,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
“So one has to work out what you think will be the likely outcome of the election. My guess is, there’s a very high chance, no more, that there’ll be no overall control.
“In that case, the parliament will produce perhaps a temporary government, which in my view can coalesce only on one thing, which is the need for a second referendum.
“That is what I want because I think the British people, given the choice today in the light of the facts, will vote to Remain.”
His comments echoed Tony Blair who on Monday urged people to vote tactically in order to secure a hung parliament.