Labour and several of its constituency parties around the country were embroiled in a series of rows about antisemitism on Friday night in the aftermath of the suspension of MP Chris Williamson.
The escalation of tensions saw arguments in one constituency about voting rights of Jewish delegates, at least two others passing motions saying antisemitic concerns were overstated, and a sharp exchange between the party’s deputy leader and its general secretary.
At the Hampstead and Kilburn constituency annual meeting in north London, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) complained that four delegates from the party affiliate had been in effect prevented from taking part. The dispute culminated in a lengthy row at the meeting itself.
Representatives from the JLM said the ill-tempered episode was one of a series in which the established rights of its members, part of a longstanding party body, were suddenly being challenged around the country.
A senior source at the Jewish Labour Movement said: “Jewish Labour members are being turned away from toxic meetings. CLPs [constituency Labour parties] are debating and passing motions that minimise the real impact of antisemitism, with Jewish MPs being forced to quit the party.”
However, others at the meeting said those complaining about JLM’s treatment had in turn tried to intimidate the chair. “There were a large group of men attempting to bully and shout down female members,” one person present said.
The constituency row came two days after Williamson, the leftwing MP for Derby North, was suspended for telling a meeting in Sheffield that Labour had been “too apologetic” about allegations of antisemitism in its ranks.
Elsewhere, an emergency motion was passed in Diane Abbott’s Hackney North constituency, noting “with increasing alarm the acceptance of the ‘fact’ that the Labour party is ‘institutionally antisemitic’ by not only the media, but the right wing of the parliamentary Labour party”.
The motion added: “It is a scandal that we are allowing ourselves to be branded as a racist party. Meanwhile, figures like Tony Blair – who bear responsibility for the death and destruction of the Iraq war … are allowed to remain members.” It was passed by 45-35.
In the Sheffield Hallam constituency, the local party passed a motion in support of Williamson by 40 votes to one. The motion said: “The allegation that Chris is downplaying antisemitism is totally unfounded. His comments, made at a Momentum meeting in Sheffield, were taken out of context in a deliberate attempt to ruin both the reputation of Chris Williamson MP and Jeremy Corbyn.”
Earlier this week Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, said he and his team would now be “logging and monitoring all complaints” of antisemitism and bullying so that he could raise them himself with the leadership and with the national executive committee.
On Friday, it emerged that this had prompted an angry response from Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary, who sent to a letter to Watson copied to all MPs saying: “It is absolutely inappropriate for you to set up a vague parallel complaints monitoring system.”
Shortly after, Watson responded, saying he would not back down. “It is my responsibility as deputy leader to ensure people have confidence in our complaints system and our ability to deal transparently with the scourge of antisemitism.”
At Hampstead and Kilburn, the JLM had hoped to send five voting delegates, in line with the limit set by national Labour rules, but the local party said it could only send a maximum of two under its own rules. Advice from the national party was used to back up the constituency party’s decision, although JLM supporters insisted the decision was incorrect, claiming that national rules should take precedence.
At least four of the JLM delegates came to the meeting, one of those present said, in the hope of getting the decision overturned, but were unsuccessful.
The dispute was further complicated by a row over dues at the party meeting itself, which led to the JLM entitlement being reduced to one because it emerged that the correct fee had been paid only for one delegate.
Other organisations, including the Labour Party Irish Society and two trade union branches, were also told they could have fewer voting delegates than they thought they were entitled to. But sources close to the JLM delegation said it was the worst affected. The local MP is Tulip Siddiq, but she is on maternity leave and was not present at the meeting.
Labour said that it rejected all claims of institutional antisemitism. Party sources added that it would not be appropriate for constituency parties to involve themselves in disciplinary cases such as Williamson’s.
A leftwing party pressure group, Labour Against the Witch Hunt, called on members to take action in support of Williamson, by emailing Formby, signing a petition or deploying a model motion that says: “The allegation that Chris is downplaying antisemitism is totally unfounded.”
Hampstead and Kilburn Labour party said: “All unions and societies were treated equally, according to the CLP standing orders and the party’s rulebook.”
A party spokesperson added: “Antisemitism complaints received since April 2018 relate to about 0.1% of our membership, but one antisemite in our party is one too many. We are determined to tackle antisemitism and root it out of our party once and for all.”