Chris Williamson: Labour MP who said his party is 'too apologetic' over antisemitism suspended

Labour leaders had initially refused to suspend Mr Williamson for the comments but later confirmed the whip would be removed

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 27 February 2019 18:06
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Labour MP Chris Williamson filmed telling activists party is too 'apologetic' about antisemitism

The Labour MP who said his party has been “too apologetic” over antisemitism has finally been suspended, following outrage from his colleagues in parliament.

Labour leaders had initially refused to suspend Mr Williamson for the comments, but after demands that the whip be removed from the MP – including from deputy leader Tom Watson – party chiefs backed down.

As well as a string of other senior party figures demanding action, almost 40 Labour MPs signed a letter calling for Mr Williamson to be suspended.

Critics and campaigners against antisemitism accused the party leadership of only finally acting against Mr Williamson after being forced into doing so by a public backlash.

It comes amid uproar from many in Mr Corbyn’s party, including deputy leader Tom Watson, who demanded the MP have the whip removed, as the antisemitism crisis was a key factor in leading MPs to resign from Labour and form the new Independent Group.

At lunch time on Wednesday Mr Corbyn’s spokesperson admitted in a statement that Mr Williamson’s comments had been “deeply offensive”, adding that “downplaying the problem of antisemitism makes it harder for us to tackle it”.

But he then went on to say the Derby North MP had been “issued with a notice of investigation for a pattern of behaviour, and is not suspended during the investigation.”

There is precedence for Labour MPs both being suspended and not suspended during internal investigations in the past, with Mr Corbyn’s spokesperson saying it was a judgement call that the party would make in each case.

But just a few hours later following the uproar, party insiders indicated that his pattern of behaviour had now been reviewed leading to the suspension.

A Labour spokesman said: “Chris Williamson is suspended from the Party, and therefore the whip, pending investigation.”

The suspension of Chris Williamson under duress shows that the Labour Party no longer possesses moral initiative

Gideon Falter, chair of campaign against antisemitism

In a sign of the difficulty facing Mr Corbyn, the spokesperson confirmed the period of Mr Williamson’s behaviour that was investigated stretched further back than three weeks ago when the leader defended him as “very good, very effective”, in an interview with the MP’s local paper.

Gideon Falter, chair of Campaign Against Antisemitism, said: “It is outrageous that he is only being investigated now, and that it is only happening in response to a public outcry, including by other Labour MPs.

“The suspension of Chris Williamson under duress shows that the Labour Party no longer possesses moral initiative.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews added: “In suspending Chris Williamson MP, UK Labour has taken the right decision, if long overdue. Thanks to Tom Watson and all those Labour MPs who had to push the party leadership to take this matter seriously.”

Theresa May calls for Chris Williamson to be suspended

For his part, Mr Williamson said in response to news of the suspension: “It’s within the party process and I’ll be working to clear my name.”

Criticism of the Derby North MP’s words from within the party was widespread on Wednesday, with the tribune group of almost 40 MPs writing an open letter to the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby demanding the whip be withdrawn from Mr Williamson.

They added: “We must set the highest standards for ourselves on issues of racism, sexism and bullying if we are to be seen as a party that can lead on behalf of all sections of our communities.”

Earlier in the day shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “His actions are grossly unacceptable. And the comments are unacceptable.

“Labour has got to give signals to the world that not only are we not prepared to tolerate antisemitism, we are not prepared to tolerate those who make an excuse for that antisemitism. So, Chris Williamson’s comments, from that point, are offensive and have to be dealt with.”

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Dame Margaret Hodge, who has been targeted with antisemitic abuse, said she had written to the chief whip and asked that the MP immediately have the whip removed.

Mr Watson shared an email he sent to Labour chief whip Nick Brown and Ms Formby, in which he also formally requested that Mr Williamson have the whip removed and be suspended from the party.

In the email he said the MP’s speech was “completely unacceptable, it brings the party into disrepute, and amounts to a Labour MP breaching the party’s code of conduct on antisemitism in a public forum”.

Mr Williamson had already provoked his party’s ire by booking a room in parliament for the screening of a film about an activist suspended for alleged antisemitism, something which a Labour spokesperson described as “completely inappropriate”.

He was first elected MP for Derby North in 2010, but was unseated in the 2015 general election. He ran again in 2017, this time receiving a visit from Mr Corbyn during the general election campaign, and won and was later made a shadow fire and emergency services minister.

The MP left the post by mutual agreement six months later after commenting on policy outside his brief to suggest that council tax should be doubled for better-off homes.

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