The British Labour Party's deputy leader, Tom Watson, has sought a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn to discuss making tackling anti-Semitism "the number-one issue" for the party. He warned that the party was "perilously close" to losing more MPs over the issue after nine resigned last week.
Mr Watson spoke the day after the suspension of close Corbyn ally Chris Williamson over his claims that the party had been "too apologetic" about anti-Semitism.
The deputy leader said Labour "can't apologise enough", describing last week's resignation of Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger as "the worst day of shame in the Labour Party's 120-year history – a pregnant young MP bullied out of her own party by racist thugs".
Mr Watson declined to comment on speculation that a representative of Mr Corbyn’s office had argued against Mr Williamson’s suspension on Wednesday.
Following the publication by the Yorkshire Post of a video of Mr Williamson’s comments, the party initially issued a call for him to withdraw the remarks. It was only later in the day, after a number of Labour MPs – including Mr Watson – voiced their outrage over the comments, that his suspension was announced.
Labour said it was “categorically untrue” to suggest that Mr Corbyn, the party leader, had intervened in the case, pointing out he had no role in disciplinary procedures. The party said the decision to suspend Mr Williamson was taken before a letter from MPs demanding tougher action was received.
Asked during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether anyone from the leader’s office had argued against suspension, Mr Watson said: “I can’t confirm that. I’ve no idea who said what in Jeremy’s office. I honestly don’t know that.
“I’ve asked to see Jeremy on Monday next week to talk about how we can further improve our measures to deal with anti-Semitism.”
Mr Watson said Mr Williamson was “entitled to a fair hearing”, but he added: “I’ve been very, very concerned that his comments have almost been deliberately inflammatory and causing offence to not just parliamentary colleagues but people in the Jewish community who understandably have a real concern about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.”
He told ITV1’s Good Morning Britain: “I don’t think we can apologise enough for anti-Semitism in our ranks. The only way we will rebuild trust with the British-Jewish community is to deal with anti-Semitism as the number-one issue in my party.
“And I’m going to do it, because I’m not going to allow half a million Labour Party members to be tainted by racism. I owe it to them to speak out. I’ve said there’s a battle for Labour’s soul. I’m worried that colleagues feel they want to go,” Mr Watson said.
“I’m doing everything I can to make sure that they feel they’re part of a movement that is a century old and millions-wide. I’m doing my best, but we are perilously close to other colleagues leaving. I just say to them again ‘Stay and fight your corner’.”
Asked if Mr Corbyn was fit to be prime minister, given his handling of the anti-Semitism issue, Mr Watson told Today: “He could easily be prime minister.
“But, of course, we could do without the anti-Semitism because it allows you to ask me that question on the Today programme. We need to close these issues down and we do it by being absolutely vigilant in the way we deal with racism in our own ranks. That’s on all of us.”
Mr Williamson has issued an apology and said he regrets his “choice of words”, but insisted he had not intended to minimise the seriousness of anti-Semitism. He told the BBC on Wednesday: “I am going to clear my name within the party procedures. I think I’ve got a very strong case. There is no evidence against me in reality.”
On Thursday, he released a statement on Twitter thanking Labour members and supporters for “the incredible solidarity you have shown me over the last 48 hours”.
Linking the tweet to a video of the US civil rights era anthem Eyes on the Prize, he added: “My message is this: Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on because #ChangeIsComing.”
His apology on Wednesday was rejected as “half-hearted” by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Mr Watson said it was “not good enough”.
Labour had already branded Mr Williamson’s actions “completely unacceptable” after he booked a room in parliament for the screening of a film about an activist suspended over anti-Semitism complaints.
Elsewhere, Labour's Dame Louise Ellman said it would be "very difficult" to tell people to vote for Mr Corbyn to be prime minister unless he "changes in a very radical way".
“He keeps saying that he’s going to do something about anti-Semitism but he hasn’t done it yet, so I’m watching,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World At One. Ms Louise said she suspected Mr Corbyn had thoughts which could be seen as anti-Semitic without registering them as such.– PA