Ward affair erodes support for LibDems after Tonge

The David Ward affair continues to rumble on, driving a further wedge between the Liberal Democrats and the UK Jewish population. The party has acted to give the Bradford East MP what Nick Clegg has described as a "yellow card". But it is unclear what purpose this was intended to serve.

Mr Ward clearly believed what he said when he asked how the Jews could collectively inflict "atrocities" on the Palestinians just years after they had been released from the death camps. His comments remain on his website, which he has updated with various pieces representing him as the victim of a campaign of vilification bringing together a rare alliance of the Guardian newspaper and prominent members of the Jewish community.

Mr Ward now has the backing of Noam Chomsky and the New Zealand Palestine Human Rights Campaign, which claimed Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust and Jon Benjamin of the Board of Deputies had proved the Lib Dem MP's point about the Jewish propensity for persecution by daring to criticise him.

Mr Ward was due to meet Nick Clegg on his return from Africa this week, but at the time of writing there was no news about whether his behaviour had yet been judged serious enough to merit a red card.

The Lib Dem leadership is in a difficult position. Mr Ward narrowly won his Bradford seat from the sitting Labour MP with the help of the anti-Zionist group MPACUK. If he were to be expelled from the party and decided to stand as an independent, it is quite possible he could win a Galloway-style victory in opposition to the traditional parties. By keeping him within the party, the Lib Dems know they could hold on to a valuable seat. The views of the UK Jewish community are largely irrelevant to such political calculations.

The David Ward affair has eaten away at the fragile goodwill Nick Clegg and others in the Lib Dem leadership have built up within the Jewish community in recent years. What they should now realise is that the case of Mr Ward is far more serious even than that of Baroness Tonge, a maverick who did not represent the views of mainstream Liberal Democrats. This is far from clear in the case of Mr Ward. As Nick Clegg told his phone-in listeners, many people have told him they believe he has already been too harsh on his MP.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is beginning to develop a more sophisticated approach. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has recently come out of his shell and appeared at a public Q&A event at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, and addressed the Jewish Labour Movement. Mr Alexander has reiterated his party's opposition to the boycott movement, while retaining its critical stance on settlement building. This is a difficult intellectual balance to strike without being accused of hypocrisy, but there seems a determined push to build Labour support for bilateral relations on high-tech, higher education and innovation while remaining opposed to any move by the Israeli government viewed as damaging the prospects for peace.

Last updated: 10:07am, February 22 2013