UK Politics

Labour will get a grip on anti-Semitism, says Tom Watson

Ken Livingstone Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ken Livingstone speaks to the media as he leaves his home

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has said the party will "get a grip" on anti-Semitism following the suspension of Ken Livingstone on Thursday.

Labour was considering changes to its rules to send "a clear signal" of its "zero tolerance" towards anti-Semitism.

Mr Livingstone was suspended after claiming Hitler supported Zionism "before he went mad".

Labour has been beset in recent weeks by growing claims of anti-Semitism within its ranks.

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said allegations must be dealt with "much more speedily in the future".

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

  • Anti-Semitism is "hostility and prejudice directed against Jewish people" (OED).
  • Zionism refers to the movement to create a Jewish state in the Middle East, corresponding to the historic land of Israel - anti-Zionism opposes that.
  • Some say "Zionist" can be used as a coded attack on Jews, while others say the Israeli government and its supporters are deliberately confusing anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism to avoid criticism.

What's the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?

Q&A: Labour anti-Semitism row

He told BBC One's Question Time on Thursday that he did not think the party was anti-Semitic but added: "These allegations, when they are surfacing, have not been dealt with properly and quickly enough."

But Mr Watson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that party leader Jeremy Corbyn did "act swiftly" to suspend his ally of 40 years, Mr Livingstone.

He said Mr Livingstone's comments were "vile" adding: "To link Hitler and Zionism in the way he did must have been designed to create offence." But he said it was for Labour's ruling national executive committee to decide whether to expel him from the party.


Image copyright Getty Images

By BBC Deputy Political Editor John Pienaar

There's mutual suspicion and hostility bordering on hatred between the rival wings and factions of the Labour Party.

It's been a messy, chaotic few days. Acrimonious in public, worse in private.

Some action is coming on Labour's approach to racism and anti-Semitism. Mr Corbyn will speak out. Rules changes explicitly declaring zero tolerance of racism look likely.

But there are fears a good deal of damage has already been done, and the Labour Party will pay a price at the polls.

Read John's full piece

Iain Watson: Anti-Semitism row bolsters Corbyn foes

In the meantime Mr Watson said he and Mr Corbyn had been looking at whether "Labour's own structures" needed changing "to make sure that we send a very clear signal to people in our party that we will have a zero tolerance approach to anti-Semitism".

"Do we need to change our rules to explicitly rule out racism and specifically include anti-Semitism in that?" he said.

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Media captionTom Watson says the party may need new rules to counter anti-Semitism.

"We are going to deal with this."

Meanwhile BBC Wales understands that Mr Corbyn cancelled a visit to Wales, where Labour activists are campaigning ahead of the assembly elections, amid fears it would be overshadowed by the anti-Semitism row.

The row exploded on Thursday after a radio interview that Mr Livingstone did with BBC Radio London, defending Naz Shah, the party's MP for Bradford West, who had been suspended on Wednesday over comments on Facebook.

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Media captionSpeaking on BBC Radio London, Ken Livingstone said Naz Shah's comments were not anti-Semitic

In it he said: "When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews."

He was later confronted outside the BBC's studios by Labour MP John Mann, who accused him of being a "Nazi apologist" in front of TV cameras. Other Labour MPs condemned Mr Livingstone's comments.


He was later suspended by Mr Corbyn, who said there had been "grave concerns" about the language used.

On Friday, Mr Livingstone told Sky News he would make his case citing a book by controversial American Marxist historian Lenni Brenner, who he met in the 1980s.

"I'll just produce the evidence and I mean it's hard for somebody to decide to suspend me from the party here when all this was there 30 years ago in the public domain and nobody raised a peep," he said.

Lord Sugar - a former Labour peer who is now sits in the Lords as an independent - said Mr Livingstone had "lost the plot" and was "obsessed with Hitler, concentration camps and Jews".

"They will wait for it to blow over a little bit and they will find some way of him coming back in, slipping back into the Labour fold," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.


But Jon Lansman, chairman of Momentum, a grassroots network of Corbyn supporters, said that while Mr Livingstone's comments were "very ill-judged, wrong and offensive" to "call Ken a Nazi apologist is ridiculous".

He said: "Just as the Tories have an interest in stoking up the flames of whatever crisis is here... largely a crisis of perception... so do some people in the Labour Party and I'm afraid John Mann is one of them. John Mann is no supporter of Jeremy Corbyn."

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Media captionLabour MP John Mann confronts Ken Livingstone as tensions rise over anti-Semitic claims.

On Wednesday Ms Shah was suspended, pending an investigation, over comments she made on Facebook before she became an MP, including a suggestion that Israel should be moved to the United States.

She has apologised but it has prompted claims from senior Labour figures that the party was not doing enough to tackle growing anti-Semitism in its ranks.

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