John Prescott has sparked a backlash among Labour MPs after declaring that the party did not have a major problem with anti-semitism.
At the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the former Deputy Prime Minister said that the focus on allegations of anti-Jewish abuse did not chime with his experience of the party or its voters.
The peer added that he did not think it was true that the Jewish community had lost trust in the party, sources claimed.
But Prescott was outnumbered as MPs lined up to urge Jeremy Corbyn – who did not attend the gathering - to ditch plans for a controversial new code of conduct that has infuriated large parts of the Jewish community.
Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth pointed out that a new poll found that nearly a third of Labour voters felt that Corbyn was “letting the party down” by failing to tackle anti-semitic abuse within its own ranks.
In a move to pile further pressure on the Labour leader, MPs agreed to hold a ballot on September 5 on a motion that the PLP itself should include in its own rule book the full wording of an internationally recognised definition of anti-semitism.
The ballot is expected to result in an overwhelming backing for the move when MPs return from their summer break, although it won’t affect the code of conduct itself.
The revised code, adopted by the ruling National Executive Committee last week, is controversial because it fails to include all the guidelines issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), including cases where Israel is compared to the Nazis.
That decision prompted veteran MP Dame Margaret Hodge to buttonhole Corbyn in the Commons, accusing him of being “an anti-semitic racist”.
During a packed end-of-term meeting of the PLP on Monday, Prescott stunned colleagues by suggesting that the problem had been given undue prominence.
The former Cabinet minister then also made a reference to the party’s disciplinary case against Dame Margaret, at which point several MPs objected and PLP chair John Cryer intervened to say it would be unfair to prejudge it.
Smeeth, who said she recently withdrew from Twitter again following a fresh spate of abuse, later cited a new poll that she said contradicted Prescott.
The JewishNews/ComRes poll found that 48% percent of all adults and 29% of Labour voters agree that the Leader of the Opposition is “letting the party down by failing to tackle anti-Semitism within some parts of the party”.
Following the meeting, one Labour MP told Prescott he had got it wrong on the reality of how the Jewish community and others felt.
Luciana Berger told the meeting that the NEC’s decision to launch a new round of consultation on the code of conduct was pointless because the Jewish community had made clear its strong opposition.
Fellow MP Kate Green said she had only recently discovered her father was Jewish but “this weekend I couldn’t look my Jewish relatives in the eye”. She said her local party supported both Corbyn’s leadership and the full IHRA definition.
Westminster North MP Karen Buck said that she had one of the largest Arab communities in the country and had always been vociferous on Palestine. But this weekend she had received a “flood of letters” from Jewish constituents saying that Labour was no longer an anti-racist party.
Chris Bryant pointed out that Labour general secretary Jennie Formby had not attended either this week or last week’s PLP meetings, despite having claimed that tackling the issue would be her “number one priority”.
Formby is on annual leave, having arranged it before she was appointed general secretary, party sources say.
Former Cabinet minister Hilary Benn added that Labour had a huge “perception problem” on anti-semitism and that it should follow the advice that “when you’re in a hole, stop digging”.
Earlier on Monday, Hodge revealed that within 12 hours of her confrontation with Corbyn she had received a letter from the party informing her that she faced a formal complaint about her conduct.
She insists she never swore at Corbyn and has several witnesses confirming she was not abusive towards the Labour leader.
After the meeting, Dame Margaret said she was “deeply depressed and almost tearful” at what had become of the party she had been in for more than 50 years.
“He [Prescott] said it’s not true that the Jewish community has lost trust in Labour. I can tell you, just ask my colleagues, the Jewish community has lost trust in Labour, full stop. The first step on that long journey to rebuilding trust is to adopt the full definition.”
Another senior Jewish Labour MP said: “This isn’t consultation, it’s just spin to try to justify their decision. They know exactly what the Jewish community thinks.”
A further backbencher told HuffPost: “What made me really angry tonight about Prescott was that he spoke despite all the evidence in recent weeks of my Jewish colleagues weeping at the abuse they’ve endured. A man was locked up last week for threatening to kill Luciana.
“But the other problem is the structural violence that comes when Labour and its leader look indifferent to the voices of the Jewish community.”