Labour MP accused of downplaying anti-Semitism ‘deeply regrets’ choice of words

By Andrew Woodcock and Ryan Wilkinson, Press Association
Chris Williamson was caught on video telling a meeting that Labour had been 'too apologetic' in its response to complaints.

Labour MP Chris Williamson has apologised after he suggested the party had “given too much ground” in its response to complaints of anti-Semitism.

The Derby North MP, who had faced a furious backlash over the remarks, said he deeply regretted his “choice of words”.

He issued his apology as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was facing Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Mrs May seized on the issue during the exchanges in the Commons, saying: “Perhaps if the Labour leader actually wants to take action against racism he would suspend (Mr Williamson).”

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson immediately dismissed the MP’s apology, saying it was “not good enough”.

He tweeted: “Chris Williamson has produced a long-winded and heavily caveated apology. It is not good enough. If it was in my gift I would have removed the whip from him already.”

Video footage showed the MP telling a meeting of the grassroots Momentum group that Labour’s reaction to anti-Semitism allegations had been “too apologetic” and had led to the party being “demonised”.

He had already provoked the party’s ire by booking a room in Parliament for the screening of a film about an activist suspended for alleged anti-Semitism, something which a Labour spokesman described as “completely inappropriate”.

The video, obtained by the Yorkshire Post, was recorded at a meeting in Sheffield in the wake of last week’s resignation of eight Labour MPs to join the Independent Group.

Mr Williamson was also filmed saying he had celebrated the resignation of MP Joan Ryan, who quit Labour in protest over the handling of anti-Semitism and bullying complaints.

Responding to the video on Twitter, Jewish MP Luciana Berger – who also quit Labour for the Independent Group – said: “This is what I have left behind. It’s toxic. Our country deserves so much better. #ChangePolitics”.

In a “personal message and sincere apology from me regarding my recent remarks on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” posted on Twitter on Wednesday, Mr Williamson said: “The Labour Party is an anti-racist party. It is the only party that has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with religious and ethnic minorities in their decades-long fight against racism, discrimination and prejudice in the United Kingdom.

“On a personal level, I have been an anti-racist all my life. As a former member of the Anti-Nazi League, I participated in direct action to confront foul anti-Semites in the streets. I reject racism ethically and morally. It has no place in the Labour Party or in our country.

“It pains me greatly, therefore, that anyone should believe that it is my intention to minimise the cancerous and pernicious nature of anti-Semitism. I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour Party has responded to the ongoing fight against anti-Semitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle anti-Semitism.

“Our movement can never be ‘too apologetic’ about racism within our ranks. Whilst it is true that there have been very few cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party – something I believe is often forgotten when discussing this issue – it is also true that those few are too many.

“It is precisely because of our party’s historic struggle against racism that we have taken it upon ourselves to strengthen our rules, to improve our disciplinary procedures and to redouble our efforts to take on anti-Semites. We have held ourselves to a higher standard than any other political party when it comes to anti-racism – and rightly so.

“I am therefore sorry for how I chose to express myself on this issue within our party. This is a fight that I want to be an ally in. In future, I will take it upon myself to be more considered in my remarks, and ensure they reflect the Labour Party’s unswerving and unfaltering commitment to anti-racism and the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Board of Deputies of British Jews president Marie van der Zyl rejected Mr Williamson’s apology, which she described as “half-hearted”, and called for Mr Corbyn to remove the whip.

She said: “Chris Williamson trolls those who oppose anti-Semitism, repeatedly siding with the anti-Semites over the Jews. The two issues reported yesterday were just the latest in a long series of offences.

“Today we have submitted a formal complaint to the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn must remove the whip at once if he wants to retain the faintest image of himself as an anti-racist. Anything less removes any semblance of leadership and reveals only the most naked moral cowardice.”

Ruth Smeeth, vice-chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, branded Mr Williamson “a disgrace” and said “he needs to go”.

She told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Those views are incompatible with the aims and values of the Labour Party.  He has no place in my party. He should leave. I really hope that we’ll see the whip removed today.

“I think that that is the least that they can do to start salvaging the reputation of the Labour Party on this issue.

“He is now becoming notorious for Jew-baiting, for saying things which are completely and utterly outrageous, for aligning himself with people who are incredibly offensive.

“This man consistently puts himself on the side of people who have abhorrent views and who have no place in the Labour Party. He needs to go.”

Mr Williamson was first elected MP for Derby North in 2010, but was unseated in the 2015 general election.

He ran again in 2017, this time receiving a visit from Mr Corbyn during the general election campaign, and won.

Mr Williamson was later made a shadow fire and emergency services minister. He left the post by mutual agreement six months later after commenting on policy outside his brief to suggest that council tax should be doubled for better-off homes.