'A lot of people assumed I was Jewish' - ex-MP Mike Gapes on 50 years of speaking up for the community

He quit Labour over its antisemitism crisis. Reflecting on his long career, he tells the JC: 'I had to be true to myself'


"I know that a lot of people assumed I was Jewish," says former Labour MP Mike Gapes, reflecting on a 50-year career in politics in which he repeatedly spoke up for the Jewish community and Israel, "and I never went out of my way to say I wasn’t.”

The political veteran, 67, spoke to the JC as he contemplated a future outside of Westminster following his defeat in December’s General Election after serving as the Ilford South MP for 27 years.

Last February, Mr Gapes – an outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn – joined former MPs Luciana Berger, Joan Ryan and others in quitting Labour in protest at the failure to tackle antisemitism and the leader’s stance on foreign policy issues and Brexit.

But as Ilford South is a safe Labour seat, he always knew he would face a tough task being re-elected this time standing as an The Independent Group for Change – which was how it turned out to be.

“I had to be true to myself,” says Mr Gapes about quitting a party he had first joined five decades ago. “I could not take part in an election again, as I had done in 2017, and campaigned for the party with the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.

“I did that in 2017 and I felt bad about doing so. I agonised for a very long time - but no, I don’t regret it.”

It has clearly been a testing time for Mr Gapes watching Ilford South remain a Labour seat under new MP Sam Tarry – but he is in no mood to criticise his replacement, despite concerns others have raised over his links to the fringe, pro-Corbyn Jewish Voice For Labour group.

But Mr Gapes, the son of postman Frank Gapes and shop assistant Emily who went onto chair the Foreign Affairs Select Committee under Tony Blair’s government, is far happier discussing his close relationship with the Jewish community, despite being born an Anglican.

A regular face over the years at Board of Deputies annual dinners and other communal functions, Mr Gapes sets out why he would become something of an "honorary" Jew in many people’s eyes.

“When I was at Buckhurst Hill County High School one of my best friends was Martin Rosner – we joined the Young Socialists at the same time," he says. “At school we staged a mock parliament at school at which Martin was the Prime Minster and I was his Chief Whip.

“A few years later I went to Martin’s son’s barmitzvah. Martin’s mum came over and said ‘It’s so good to see you, you were always at our house’. She asked me how I was enjoying the evening – but I told her I didn’t go to that many barmitvahs.

“She responded by saying ‘Of course you do, you must do!’ 

“Martin then responded, ‘Mike’s not Jewish, mum’  She then replied: ‘What? Of course he is!’”

Becoming the MP for Ilford South in 1992, there were also serious political issues involving the community that Mr Gapes eagerly became involved with.

“When I was fighting against some of the extremist Islamists who put out leaflets against me here in 2001 they were going around saying ‘Don’t vote for that Jewish MP’," he reveals.

“That year they put out a leaflet which said ‘Mike Gapes, no friend of the Muslims – a true friend of Israel. He represents Tel Aviv South, not Ilford South.’”

He adds that two brothers, whom he named in parliament in 2001, were behind the campaign against him who lived locally along with another individual who set up the Association of Ilford Muslims.

“This all started when the Second Intifada was taking place,” says Mr Gapes. “They came to see me in my advice surgery and said unless I supported the Palestinians and condemned the Israelis publicly the ‘Muslims will not vote for you’.

“I turned around and said two short words to them. They left my office, and that was that.”

Proudly Mr Gapes also reveals how he attempted in 1997 to bring in a Private Members Bill to make Holocaust denial illegal.

The Bill ran out of time because of the General Election that year, but following Tony Blair’s victory, Andrew Dismore would then successfully introduce a Holocaust Memorial Day Bill as an indirect result of Mr Gapes earlier efforts.

“The Jewish community had moved away from Labour big time,” accepts Mr Gapes of the political climate before Mr Blair’s government. “I remember the mad motions at party conferences in the 1980s where Livingstone and others were arguing Zionism was racism.

“People were really uncomfortable, but even under Neil Kinnock, then under Tony Blair and also Gordon Brown – they were all friends of Israel and a lot of Jewish people came back.

“But I have always believed it is very dangerous if parties start defining their politics according to religious rules.

“I think Alastair Campbell was right when he said ‘we don’t do religion’.”

But one view that has never altered in Mr Gapes mind is his belief in the right of the State of Israel to exist. “I'm a non Jewish Zionist in that sense,” he says.

Some of the highlights of Mr Gapes' political career include his part in the Good Friday Agreement, his time as chairman of the foreign affairs committee and the tens of thousands of people in his constituency who he has helped over the years.

But he admits it has been “absolutely agonising for me” to watch the “Stalinists, Trotskyites and Communists” most of who “detested the Labour Party but have now captured it and some of who are actually in Corbyn’s inner-circle.”

He says that in 2015, he had major heart problems. “I’m sure it was stress related, and I’m sure some of it was down to how much energy I was devoting to fight these people.”

Mr Gapes says Labour is currently in the midst of a “disaster” under Mr Corbyn, a scenario that he foresaw when he left the party last February. He says he was

Now he says we shall “have to wait and see” what happens to the country under Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

As for the new Labour Party leader, to be appointed on April 4, they will “have to have the courage of Neil Kinnock and the determination of Kinnock” to change things in the party.

“It took him nine years to succeed,” says Mr Gapes of Mr Kinnock’s fight against the far-left Militant Tendency in the 1980s. “And even then, just to prepare the way for John Smith."

As for Mr Gapes himself, he says he does not want to “vegetate” now his own political career appears to have ended.

“I’m not saying I’m desperate to do something quick, but as much as I enjoy it, I’m not sure I can spend all of my time watching West Ham play football and watching the cricket at Middlesex.”

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