Labour antisemitism row: U-turn on Chris Williamson raises questions over disciplinary process | Politics News
When the Yorkshire Post published a video showing Chris Williamson suggesting the Labour Party had been “too apologetic” about antisemitism, there was an immediate outcry.
It also fast became seen by many Labour MPs as an immediate test for the party leadership.
The Derby North MP is one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most ardent, and controversial, loyalists.
But after a string of controversies to his name there was clear pressure on Mr Corbyn to show he would match his words of condemnation of antisemitism with action – even against a friend.
Shadow Brexit minister Matthew Pennycoock described Mr Williamson’s comments as “baiting, pure and simple”, while deputy leader Tom Watson said he was writing to Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby to demand his suspension.
As the criticisms began to pile up, a Labour spokesman issued a statement saying the comments were “deeply offensive and that “downplaying the problem of antisemitism makes it harder for us to tackle it”.
“Chris Williamson should apologise immediately,” they added.
That was forthcoming, posted on social media just as PMQs got underway at midday, with Mr Williamson issuing a “sincere apology” and saying he regretted his choice of words.
That didn’t stop the issue being seized upon in the Commons by Theresa May, criticising the Labour leader’s handling of the situation and adding her voice to those demanding Mr Williamson’s suspension.
But when Mr Corbyn’s spokesman addressed reporters after PMQs, he confirmed that Mr Williamson would not be suspended despite an investigation being launched into his “pattern of behaviour”.
That position provoked a major backlash – and one shadow cabinet minister told me shortly afterwards that efforts were underway to get the decision changed.
They said: “He needs to be kicked out now. The PLP are going berserk, the unions are calling it out. He has to go.”
Mr Watson issued a statement on Twitter, saying: “If it was in my gift I would have removed the whip from him already.”
Tim Roache, the general secretary of the GMB union, joined in too, saying: “Time for him to go.”
Soon after, 38 Labour MPs from the Tribune group, including a number who sit on the shadow frontbench, signed a lengthy letter and sent it to Jennie Formby urging her to suspend Mr Williamson.
At around 5pm, just four hours after Mr Corbyn’s spokesman had said he would not be suspended, the party confirmed that the decision had been changed.
“Chris Williamson is suspended from the party, and therefore the whip, pending investigation,” the party statement said.
Sources in Labour headquarters claimed the change was the result of Mr Williamson’s “pattern of behaviour” being reviewed in full by relevant staff, prompting the general secretary to escalate the action against him.
Bill Esterson, one of the shadow ministers who signed the letter to Jennie Formby, seemed forgiving of the earlier decision when he spoke to Sky News.
“We got there within a day, I think we got there in a timely fashion, and I think it does send out that strong message that Labour is taking seriously the challenge of rooting out antisemitism from within our party,” he said.
But not all were quite so understanding.
Other shadow ministers, who did not wish to be named, suggested the rapid reappraisal was more the result of the seriousness of the political reaction, than any swift examination of the evidence in Labour’s Victoria Street offices.
As for Mr Williamson, moments after his suspension Sky News managed to speak to him while he consumed a soft drink at a pub just outside parliament.
His response to questions was limited – that there is a process the party must follow and that he is determined to clear his name.
Mr Corbyn is yet to make any public comment on the case, but despite the fact the party has now delivered on what his critics were demanding, their criticisms are likely continue – for the simple reason that they had to demand he take action in the first place.