Fagin jibe lands Labour in trouble

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Indy Politics

Ian McCartney, the chairman of the Labour Party, opened himself to being accused of anti-Semitism yesterday by describing a Jewish Conservative Party politician as a "21st-century Fagin".

He threw the jibe at the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, during a speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference. Mr Letwin was targetted because of a speech he made last week, promising to reduce public spending by around £30bn a year.

Mr McCartney told delegates: "What would life under Slasher Letwin look like?

"No Oliver Twist, this man, more of a Fagin. This 21st-century Fagin will pick the pockets of Scotland's pensioners by abolishing the pension credit and then plan for a new generation of poor pensioners by abolishing the second state pension."

Fagin was the Jewish villain in Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist. Mr Letwin is the descendant of Jewish refugees from the Ukraine.

Mr McCartney defended himself later by saying that it was "absolute nonsense" to interpret his remarks as anti-Semitic, adding that he had campaigned against racism all his adult life. "No one who reads the remarks in context could interpret them in that way. It is simply a reference to the Tory policy on scrapping pension credit. This was a comment about Oliver Letwin's politics and the Tory Party's policies."

But his comments drew condemnation from Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue, who described them as "a throwback to the worst kind of stereotype from a bygone age. Consciously or otherwise, it is reference to Mr Letwin's face rather than his politics."

His gaffe will be a relief for the Tories, who were acutely embarrassed by a racial joke told by one of their MPs, Ann Winterton. During a Whitehall dinner, Mrs Winterton told a joke about the deaths of 20 Chinese cocklers in Morecambe Bay. The story was passed to a newspaper by a fellow diner, the Labour MP Nick Palmer.

Now Mr Palmer is under attack after a revelation today's Mail on Sunday that he posted a joke about Muslims on his website. This consisted of a mock schedule for "Taliban TV" including such items as "Koranation Street - Deidre faces execution by stoning for adultery".

The spoof was posted on Mr Palmer's website in October 2001, a month after the 11 September atrocities. He defended it, saying that the Taliban were a "legitimate target for satire". He added: "I was making fun of the oppressors, not the victims."