John McDonnell has urged Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to “keep on apologising” to Jewish people for the pain caused by anti-Semitism in the party.
In a new podcast, the former shadow chancellor said he wanted Corbyn’s reinstatement as a Labour MP but accepted that the “language” and timing of his response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report into the issue had caused friction in the party.
Corbyn was this week warned by Labour chief whip Nick Brown that he had to unequivocally apologise for his claim that anti-Semitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated” for factional gain by his critics.
Defenders of the former leader are backing his legal challenge to Keir Starmer’s decision to withhold the parliamentary whip, arguing that he was factually correct to point out that 0.3% of party members had a case of anti-Semitism against them.
But in an interview for Intelligence Squared’s “How I Found My Voice” podcast, McDonnell made clear that the case numbers were not relevant and the key was to acknowledge the impact of abuse on the UK’s Jewish community.
“Numerically, the number of cases of anti-Semitism within the Labour party might be small, but that’s not the issue. It’s the pain,” he said.
“The point that Jeremy made ages ago, ‘one anti-Semite in the Labour Party is too many’. So you don’t calculate the numbers, you calculate the pain that’s inflicted, and that’s been immense.”
McDonnell stressed that he wanted the party to “move on” and implement the EHRC’s statutory verdict to improve its processes and root out discrimination, and suggested Corbyn and Starmer shared both objectives.
“The anti-Semitism issue has been a nightmare, we’ve got to come out of this nightmare. it’s been a really dark night,” he said.
“Mistakes have been made, we accepted that. Apologies have been made time and time again and I repeat, even now the number of apologies we’ve made to the Jewish community and we need to keep on apologising to them as well.”
But he pointed out that anti-Semitism had long roots in Labour, stretching back to Oswald Mosley’s time as an MP before founding the British Union of Fascists.
He also criticised posters trialled during the 2005 election under Tony Blair, which were seen as depicting Jewish Tory leader Michael Howard as a Shylock or Fagin figure.
McDonnell’s remarks echo those of Momentum founder Jon Lansman, who told the LabourList website this month the personal pain he felt at Corbyn’s remarks and their timing.
Lansman, who took part in Labour disciplinary panels that investigated some of the worst cases of abuse, has called for Corbyn’s reinstatement while stressing his words were “not right”.
“I’ve had lots of antisemitic abuse. I am hurt by that. The hurt has not been exaggerated. The hurt is real. So I think Jeremy’s words were not right. I disagree with them,” Lansman said.
In the new podcast, McDonnell said that he worried that many younger Labour members who flocked to the party under Corbyn were now leaving it over the anti-Semitism row and its consequences.
“I’m saying that you’ve got to stay in, and take us to the next level of these struggles. Accept that our generation, my generation made mistakes around this. And we need to move on.”
Corbyn was reinstated as a Labour party member by the ruling National Executive Committee earlier this month, after clarifying his comments to say that concerns about anti-Semitism were “neither exaggerated nor overstated”.
But following an outcry among Jewish groups and Labour MPs, Starmer decided not to restore his predecessor as a Labour MP.
On Tuesday, Starmer faced fresh opposition from leftwing members of the NEC amid claims he had tried to block the election as chair of a union official who had signed a letter objecting to Corbyn’s treatment.
Some Corbyn allies insist that his statement issued on the day of the EHRC report was misinterpreted and that he had not sought to minimise the scale of the hurt caused to Jewish people, only to put in context the number of cases involved.