Keir Starmer has said it was "completely wrong" for protesters to tear down the statue of a 17th Century slave trader - but insisted it should have been removed "a long time ago".
The Labour leader said the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol "shouldn't have been done in that way" after demonstrators toppled the bronze memorial and dumped it in the harbour on Sunday.
However Sir Keir said the monument should have been taken down "with consent" and placed in a museum.
He also criticised Labour MP Barry Gardiner for attending the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London, saying MPs must "lead by example" on social distancing rules.
In the first in a string of regular phone-ins on LBC, Sir Keir was pressed on the removal of the statue, which was described as "utterly disgraceful" by the home secretary Priti Patel.
He said: "It shouldn't be done in that way, completely wrong to pull a statue down like that.
"But stepping back that statue should have been brought down a long time, should have been taken down a long, long time ago.
"You can't, in 21st Century Britain, have a slaver on a statue. A statue is there to honour people. You can't have that in 21st Century Britain.
"That statue should have been brought down properly with consent and put, I would say, in a museum.
"This was a man who was responsible for 100,000 people being moved from Africa to the Caribbean as slaves, including women and children who were branded on their chests with the name of the company that he ran.
"Of the 100,000, 20,000 died en route and then were chucked in the sea. He should not be in a statue in Bristol or anywhere else."
Police have launched an investigation after the controversial bronze memorial to Colston, which has been situated in Bristol since 1895, was torn down during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said he did not "condone violence and criminal acts" and that "it should have come down in a democratic way".
But in an interview with ITV's Good Morning Britain, Mr Lammy also compared the protesters to followers of Martin Luther King and the Suffragettes.
He said: "We have a tradition in our country of protest. We have had great men and women, like Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragettes who have faced imprisonment because of their protest.
"I'm quite sure that those young people who brought that statue down knew that they would be facing the law but that was a price they were willing to pay and there are many examples throughout history, from Martin Luther King to Harvey Milk, who protested on behalf of gay rights.
"Many, many men and women following these people and being prepared to break the law because they believed the issue of justice they wanted to shine a light on was a bigger project."
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