Jeremy Corbyn is facing demands to force Ken Livingstone out of Labour for his comments linking Adolf Hitler and Zionism, as 100 of his own MPs criticised the party’s response to a growing antisemitism crisis.
The Labour leader came under pressure to take more action after an unprecedented outcry from MPs and senior figures in the Jewish community about the decision to let Livingstone stay in the party.
A disciplinary panel of three officials found Livingstone guilty on Tuesday night of bringing the party into disrepute for suggesting that Hitler supported Zionism and defending Labour MP Naz Shah’s antisemitic Facebook post, for which she has apologised. He was suspended for a further year, but senior Labour figures, from deputy leader Tom Watson to former leader Ed Miliband and London mayor Sadiq Khan, said he should have been expelled from the party.
Corbyn issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon criticising Livingstone, his old ally and supporter, for causing deep offence to the Jewish community, and asked the party’s ruling body to examine some of Livingstone’s more recent comments, such as the claim that there was “real collaboration” between Hitler and some German Jews in the 1930s.
“Ken Livingstone’s comments have been grossly insensitive, and he has caused deep offence and hurt to the Jewish community,” Corbyn said. “It is deeply disappointing that, despite his long record of standing up to racism, Ken has failed to acknowledge or apologise for the hurt he has caused. Many people are understandably upset that he has continued to make offensive remarks which could open him to further disciplinary action.”
However, the Labour leader disappointed some of his MPs by saying he respected the disciplinary panel’s decision to suspend Livingstone for another year rather than expel him. He also told reporters from regional newspapers that he wanted Livingstone to stop making controversial comments and “contribute to our party’s work in trying to win elections and oppose racism in any form”.
In an escalation of the controversy, nine senior members of Labour Friends of Israel, including Joan Ryan, Louise Ellman and Rachel Reeves, wrote to Corbyn urging him to call publicly for Livingstone to be expelled and to press the national executive committee to review its decision.
Around 100 Labour MPs, among them shadow cabinet ministers such as Barry Gardiner and Angela Rayner, also signed a statement saying the Labour decision “was not done in our name and we will not allow it to go unchecked”.
“This week the institutions of the Labour party have betrayed our values. We stand united in making it clear that we will not allow our party to be a home for antisemitism and Holocaust revisionism. We stand with the Jewish community and British society against this insidious racism,” they said.
Senior members of the Jewish community lined up to express their frustration, led by Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s chief rabbi, who accused Labour of failing the Jewish community by not expelling Livingstone. “This was a chance for the Labour party to show that it would not tolerate wilful and unapologetic baiting of the Jewish community by shamefully using the Holocaust as a tool with which to inflict the maximum amount of offence,” he said. His phrase was echoed by Theresa May, the prime minister, as she launched the Conservative party’s local election campaign, arguing Labour had “revealed the depths to which it has now sunk, betraying the Jewish community in our country by letting Ken Livingstone off the hook”.
Within Labour, Watson, the deputy leader, led criticism of the panel’s decision, saying it brought “shame on us all”. “I am ashamed that we have allowed Mr Livingstone to cause such distress,” he said. “It isn’t just Jewish people who feel disgusted and offended by what Mr Livingstone said and by the way he has conducted himself over this matter, and it isn’t just Jewish Labour members who feel ashamed of any indulgence of his views anywhere in the Labour party.”
Miliband said: “I am appalled that even now Ken shows no real remorse. His status should be revisited in the light of his continuing offensive behaviour.”
There were a string of reports that Jewish Labour members were leaving the party, with Lord Levy, the chief fundraiser under Tony Blair, among those saying he was considering his future as a member. Tulip Siddiq, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, warned Corbyn that Jewish constituents were contacting her in despair and terminating their membership.
Livingstone was unrepentant on Wednesday, appearing on several broadcasters to accuse Labour MPs of whipping up the controversy to undermine Corbyn’s leadership. The former London mayor, who has been a Labour member for almost 50 years, argued that the controversy had been stirred by Labour figures who he claimed had come under “an awful lot of pressure” to denounce him. He also told LBC he could not see “what all the fuss is about” and that he did not believe Jewish Labour members were leaving.
His defiant stance prompted Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general who oversaw Labour’s review of antisemitism, to backtrack on an earlier statement saying that Labour had demonstrated its ability to hold a mirror up to itself.
“Ken Livingstone was fairly and rightly found guilty of bringing the Labour party into disrepute,” she said. “The punishment of suspension was thought inadequate by some members of both the Labour party and the Jewish community that Livingstone has so offended.
“However, his remarks since yesterday’s decision have overtaken those arguments. I am horrified by Ken Livingstone’s lack of contrition and repeated offence, which could be potential grounds for further investigation by the party. In the meantime, I can only implore Livingstone to maintain a silence and to please stop further damaging community relations, the party to which he has given so much of his life and himself.”
Livingstone’s claim that the charges against him were part of a move against Corbyn were challenged by Ivan Lewis, a Jewish Labour MP and former minister, who said: “Those who claim that these concerns are part of some ‘rightwing conspiracy’ against Jeremy Corbyn should be reminded that no one forced Ken Livingstone to go into a radio studio to speak about Nazi support for Zionism. They must also confront the reality that a minority who claim to be progressive seem to think that their opposition to the policies of the Israeli government entitles them to use rhetoric and imagery which is pure and simple Jew hatred.
“Equally, those socialists who seek to justify or deny antisemitism whenever it rears its ugly head are nothing more than apologists for racism. Enough is enough.”