|You will no doubt have seen that Chris Williamson, the Labour MP for Derby North, has been suspended by the Labour party and had the whip withdrawn pending an investigation into his conduct following complaints, including from other Labour MPs. This relates to comments that he made at a Sheffield Momentum meeting about Labour’s approach to anti-Semitism and his booking of a room at the House of Commons for Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), to enable them to show a film about the suspended Labour activist, Jackie Walker.
The initial announcement of an investigation into these matters was only later followed by the suspension and withdrawal of the whip, seemingly in response to demands from a number of prominent party figures, including the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, and a letter from the Tribune Group of 38 Labour MPs, which includes the Welsh MPs, Chris Elmore, David Hanson, Stephen Kinnock, Anna McMorrin, Owen Smith and Jo Stevens.
There has been much discussion of this issue, within and beyond the Labour party, and the WLG Steering Committee felt it important to put our own position on the record, via the following statement:
The Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG) Steering Committee is concerned by the suspension of Chris Williamson and by much of the public discussion of his case. We accept that the party needed to investigate the issues that gave rise to the complaint against him but we believe that the suspension and withdrawal of the whip was unfair and unnecessary and that much of the commentary by Labour politicians and media commentators misinterprets Chris Williamson’s comments and misrepresents his attitude towards anti-Semitism.
Chris Williamson has been accused of suggesting that Labour has apologised too readily to people in the Jewish community who may have experienced anti-Semitism. It seems clear to us, however, that this was not his intent; rather, he was seeking to argue that Labour politicians have often been too quick to accept questionable claims about the scale of the problem and ill-informed criticism of its handling of it, rather than accurately quantifying the incidence of reported cases* and acknowledging the party’s positive record in challenging racism, while admitting that more could still be done.
One may agree or disagree with this view, or feel that Chris Williamson should have taken greater care in the way he expressed it (as he himself appears to accept in his public apology) but it is surely well within the scope of legitimate debate. No significant Labour officer or elected representative has disputed that anti-Semitism is abhorrent or sought to deny that it exists within the Labour party. But to seek to close down any discussion about the prevalence of anti-Semitism or the best way of fighting it is to undermine Labour’s best traditions of healthy debate and to hamper efforts to root out prejudice and address the conditions that allow it to develop. The conduct of some commentators also risks creating a “hostile environment” in which anyone defending Palestinian rights and criticising the Israeli state fears being tarnished as “anti-Semitic”.
Chris Williamson has a long record of actively opposing racism and fascism in all their forms – indeed, a more impressive record in this respect than many of his detractors can claim. Like Jeremy Corbyn, he has distinguished himself by speaking his mind fearlessly on a range of issues, from Labour’s housing policy to the campaign to undermine the elected government of Venezuela. Unlike many other MPs, he has been a strong advocate of democratisation within the party and a loyal supporter of our elected Leader.
We find the ‘trial by media’ to which Chris has been subjected deeply unedifying; those who object to his comments and actions are, of course, within their rights to submit formal complaints but to air their grievances so loudly and publicly can only undermine Labour at a time when we should be united in holding the Tory government to account and risks denying Chris Williamson a fair hearing.
We note that the Labour NEC decided some time ago to abandon the automatic use of administrative suspension pending the outcome of a disciplinary complaint, in all but the most serious cases (such as when the member in question poses some sort of ongoing threat to others). We see no justification for suspending Chris Williamson and call for his suspension to be ended and the whip restored.
WLG remains implacably opposed to anti-Semitism, along with all other forms of racism, such as Islamophobia, and bigotry and prejudice of any kind. We offer our unconditional solidarity to all those who encounter such hatred, regardless of whether we otherwise agree with them politically. We believe that all cases of anti-Semitic abuse should continue to be dealt with through the party’s disciplinary procedures and we applaud the steps taken under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby to implement the Chakrabarti recommendations, including the expansion of the NCC to deal with cases more quickly, as well as the efforts made to educate our members about the issue.
We believe, however, that the tone of public discussion on this issue often militates against the kind of frank and serious discussion needed to develop effective solutions. The strident calls for punitive action against Chris Williamson are an unhealthy symptom of this problem and we believe he deserves our support in seeking a fair hearing.
*Statistics published by the General Secretary reveal that, over the last ten months, complaints received have led to 453 members being investigated for anti-Semitism; it has been pointed out that this amounts to 1/12th of 1% of the total party membership.