Jeremy Corbyn accused of blocking suspension of Labour MP Chris Williamson amid antisemitism row

Exclusive: Multiple MPs say Labour leader ‘personally’ intervened to stop Derby North MP having whip withdrawn, despite fury at his claims party had been ‘too apologetic’ on racist abuse

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 27 February 2019 22:56
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Labour MP Chris Williamson filmed telling activists party is too 'apologetic' about antisemitism

Jeremy Corbyn’s office directly intervened to prevent Chris Williamson being suspended from the Labour Party despite his comments on antisemitism that sparked outrage among colleagues, multiple sources have told The Independent.

A string of senior Labour figures, including two on the front bench, confirmed the claims that the party’s chief whip, Nick Brown, was ready to suspend the MP until the leader’s team interceded, resulting in a temporary reprieve for Mr Williamson.

One shadow cabinet source told The Independent: “This decision was taken off Nick Brown and taken by the general secretary and the leader’s office. They hide behind process but these decisions are always taken by the leader’s office.”

The initial decision to shield Mr Williamson from a suspension after he was filmed saying that his party had been “too apologetic” over racist abuse was met with a wave of anger, threats of frontbench resignations and dozens of Labour MPs, antisemitism campaigners and Jewish groups demanding action.

The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) committee also took what MPs called a “totally unprecedented” decision to ask Mr Williamson to stop attending PLP meetings.

The backlash eventually forced the party to announce that Mr Williamson had been suspended pending an investigation.

Asked about reports that he had intervened to block a suspension, Mr Corbyn’s office would only say that the Labour leader had not personally spoken to Mr Brown to urge him against withdrawing the whip, but did not deny that his office had intervened in the matter.

The latest row over antisemitism comes after eight Labour MPs quit the party last week to form the new Independent Group, with many citing racist abuse and bullying targeted at Jewish MPs as a key reason.

Mr Williamson prompted outrage on Wednesday after it emerged that he had told a meeting of the left-wing Momentum group in Sheffield that Labour had “given too much ground” on antisemitism and been “too apologetic” on the matter. His speech was filmed and later published by The Yorkshire Post.

With the Derby North MP having faced previous criticism in relation to incidents of alleged antisemitism, including offering to host a parliamentary screening of a film by a Labour member suspended for claiming Jews had been the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, party leaders were forced to launch an investigation.

Mr Corbyn’s spokesperson said soon after 1.00pm that the MP would not be suspended while this process took place, only for Mr Williamson’s suspension to be confirmed at 5.00pm – after hours of protest and minutes after The Independent asked Mr Corbyn’s team for a response to claims the Labour leader had intervened.

MPs who spoke to Mr Brown and his team throughout the day were told he was ready to remove the whip from Mr Williamson but had not received approval from Mr Corbyn.

One frontbench Labour MP told The Independent that Mr Corbyn had “personally” ordered that Mr Williamson should not be suspended – a decision that was then communicated to Labour whips.

The MP said: “It was made quite clear by the senior whips that withdrawing the whip would be a good idea and part of the process. The leader’s office said ‘No, we can’t do that’.

“The advice from the whips was very clear from early on that he should be suspended. That advice was given very robustly to the leader’s office this morning and it was ignored.”

Of the ruling not to suspend Mr Williamson, they said: “It was a decision taken by Jeremy.”

Chris Williamson says he will be working to clear his name

Another Labour MP said: “My understanding is that the chief whip was asked what his recommendation was. Nick was absolutely clear that he should be suspended and it took Jeremy’s personal intervention to stop the suspension.”

A third MP said they had been told by senior Labour figures that Mr Corbyn’s team spoke to Mr Brown “to stop [the suspension] from happening”.

And a fourth, Mitcham and Morden MP Siobhain McDonagh, said: “Jeremy personally refused to sanction the suspension this morning. I don’t know what led him to change his mind but I do know he intervened at first to stop the suspension.”

MPs suggested that the eventual decision to suspend Mr Williamson came as several shadow ministers were considering resigning over the matter, and further protests were being planned by furious MPs. They also pointed to the PLP committee’s decision to ask the MP to stop attending meetings.

Sources said Mr Brown had hinted during the PLP committee meeting that the decision not to suspend Mr Williamson had not been made by him and that he was in ongoing discussions with Mr Corbyn’s team and Jennie Formby, Labour’s general secretary.

In a sign of the difficulty facing Mr Corbyn, his spokesperson confirmed that the period of Mr Williamson’s behaviour that is being investigated stretched further back than three weeks ago, when the Labour leader defended the MP as “very good, very effective”.

Criticism of the Derby North MP from within the party was widespread on Wednesday, with almost 40 MPs from the soft left Tribune group writing an open letter to the Ms Formby demanding the whip be withdrawn from Mr Williamson.

They wrote: “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.”

Veteran MP 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.

And Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, shared an email he had sent to Ms 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”.

Responding to the row, Mr Williamson said he deeply regretted his “choice of words”, adding: “I am therefore sorry for how I chose to express myself on this issue within our party.”

It came as a former Labour press officer claimed that Mr Corbyn had not seen any problem with former London mayor Ken Livingstone claiming that Adolf Hitler had “supported Zionism”.

Bernie Keavy, who said he was with the Labour leader when the row broke out in 2016, claimed Mr Corbyn’s response on hearing the comments, which eventually led to Mr Livingstone being suspended by the party, was: “What’s the issue?”

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Mr Keavy wrote on Twitter: “He asked several times which part of the interview was causing consternation. Once that was explained to him, [Mr Corbyn’s team] moved onto considering what to do next. One of his staff said that whatever action they took, they must be careful to avoid upsetting pro-Palestinian campaigners.

“They eventually came to the conclusion that it was inevitable that Ken had to be suspended, but Jeremy was adamant that this should only happen if John Mann [the Bassetlaw MP, who had confronted Mr Livingstone over the comments] was suspended too. He repeated this several times.”

He added: “So Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to act today, and his inability and/or unwillingness to understand the issue of antisemitism among his allies, does not surprise me in the slightest.”

Responding to the claims, a Labour Party spokesperson said: “This account is false.”

Mr Corbyn’s former head of media, Kevin Slocombe, also wrote on Twitter that the claims were “just not true”, saying he had informed Mr Corbyn of Mr Livingstone’s comments and that Mr Keavy had not been present.

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