Labour was 'catastrophic' on Israel, says shadow cabinet member Michael Dugher
A combination of “neglect” and “incompetence” led Labour to “mishandle” its relationship with the Jewish community, a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet has admitted.
Michael Dugher, who is managing the campaign of Labour leadership frontrunner Andy Burnham, attacked the party’s handling of last summer’s war in Gaza and labelled Ed Miliband’s decision to whip his MPs to support the motion on Palestinian statehood last autumn as “catastrophic”.
Mr Dugher was scathing in his assessment of why so many Jews voted Conservative.
“I don’t accept a deliberate decision was taken to ignore the Jewish community because we were trying to seek somehow more important votes elsewhere, but I think that either through neglect or, frankly, in some instances incompetence, we mishandled our relationship with the Jewish community.”
He added: “Too many people in the Jewish community felt that Labour wasn’t their party any more and that’s why I think there is an urgent task to rebuild our bridges with the Jewish community.”
A leading member of Labour’s general election team, Mr Dugher says that the party had “deep underlying problems” with Jewish voters. “Our attitude to Israel and the Middle East is really important to the Jewish community.”
Mr Dugher dismissed suggestions that the party ignored the community as part of its so-called “35 per cent” strategy.
A vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, Mr Dugher believed that during Operation Protective Edge, the party’s language was “not always as sensitive, as balanced, as fair and as responsible as it needed to be”.
He added: “We didn’t do enough to reassure people here at home that that was our approach.”
He warned the party that if it wants a future Labour government to play an important role in the Middle East peace process, it has “got to be seen as an honest broker”.
Mr Dugher revealed that he spoke to Ed Miliband about the party’s decision to support a backbench motion to unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state last October.
Labour’s position, which he branded “unnecessary and divisive”, became the “straw that broke the camel’s back with many people in the Jewish community. I knew exactly what would happen and I regretted that very profoundly,” he said.
Mr Dugher is unrepentant about his own decision to defy Mr Miliband’s imposition of a three-line whip on the vote: “I deliberately abstained and I made it clear that I wasn’t going to invent some kind of appointment in my constituency or busy campaigning opportunity. We were in the run-up to a general election, I absolutely stand by collective responsibility but there was no discussion of this at Shadow Cabinet.”
The shadow transport secretary said he objected to the motion because he did not feel it did “justice to the Labour party’s own policy.
“When we talked about recognition for the Palestinians in the past, our policy, rightly — and this is still true today — recognised that there needed to be a multilateral approach and it needed to involve the UN. I felt that they were fundamental components of our policy and I felt that the motion didn’t adequately represent that.”
Mr Dugher argued in internal discussion at the time that Labour’s frontbench should table its own amendment to Grahame Morris’ controversial motion.
Not doing so was “a fundamental and rather catastrophic political management error, to say the least. I think it was a mistake. I don’t think it was done deliberately. I think it was just down to incompetence,” he said.
As Labour begins the process of electing a new leader, Mr Dugher strenuously defended the bookies’ favourite, Andy Burnham, from criticism that he will repeat Mr Miliband’s errors.
Mr Dugher said he had spoken to the shadow health secretary about Labour strained relationship with the Jewish community. Mr Burnham, he suggested, would “reach out” to it if he’s elected in September.
Referring to his fellow LFI vice-chair Rachel Reeves’ endorsement of Mr Burnham, he argued: “There’s no way that people like Rachel and I would be supporting any candidate who took the wrong attitude to these things.”
Mr Burnham, his campaign manager claimed, supports a two-state solution and is a “supporter of Israel being safe and secure in her borders”.
Mr Dugher effectively urged the party to draw a line under the Miliband era by being “more proud as a Labour party of our ties with Israel”. He believed the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in two year’s time provided an opportunity for it to do so.
“I think we need to make that a real important anniversary here in the UK and to celebrate the role that we had in the creation of the state of Israel,” he said.
Calling for a recognition that “we can’t just look at Israel through the prism of the Middle East conflict”, Mr Dugher believed it was time to “give credit for the extraordinary achievement that the state of Israel has had and actually be proud of Britain’s small part to play in that”.