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27 February 2019

Labour’s investigation into Chris Williamson won’t be enough for MPs

Jeremy Corbyn has deviated from type in disciplining his close ally over his comments on anti-Semitism – but it falls far short of what MPs want.

By Patrick Maguire

Labour has launched an investigation into the conduct of Chris Williamson, the ultra-Corbynite MP for Derby North. The move comes after a week in which he invited a suspended Labour activist accused of anti-Semitism to the Commons and said the party had been “too apologetic” in its approach to the issue (comments for which he himself apologised for this morning).

Addressing reporters after Jeremy Corbyn was directly challenged on the case by Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions, a spokesperson for the Labour leader revealed that Williamson has been served with a “notice of investigation” into what they described as a “pattern of behaviour”. He has not, however, been suspended, as Corbyn’s deputy Tom Watson and other shadow cabinet ministers demanded.

That sanction, incidentally, is the same disciplinary process the Corbynsceptic MPs Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin – who has since resigned from the Labour Party – were subject to after altercations with the party leadership over anti-Semitism last summer. The case could theoretically end up before the party’s ruling national executive committee or, in extremis, the national constitutional committee, its quasi-judicial disciplinary body.

So at some indeterminate point in the future – Team Corbyn would not be drawn on the timescale of the investigation or, indeed, what exactly its terms of reference are to be – one of those bodies might opt to suspend or expel Williamson. Given what we already know about Labour’s sclerotic internal processes, it could be some time before the party machine reaches – or indeed falls short of – a conclusion MPs wanted the leadership to reach today.

That isn’t to say the move is an insignificant one. Context is important. There has been no shortage of occasions to discipline Williamson for the offence he has caused the Jewish community and Corbyn has hitherto passed up the opportunity to offer anything more than a verbal reprimand issued through a Labour spokesperson. Despite the political and reputational damage the inaction inflicts, the reasoning behind it is obvious: Williamson, one of the leadership’s most enthusiastic outriders, is both unswervingly loyal to Corbyn and ideologically close to him.

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Indeed, just three weeks ago Corbyn described Williamson thus: “Chris Williamson is a very good, very effective Labour MP. He’s a very strong anti-racist campaigner. He is not anti-Semitic in any way.” (His spokesman would not say whether the “pattern” of behaviour under investigation predated those remarks.) In belatedly launching a formal investigation into Williamson’s conduct, he has departed from type in such a way that reflects the leadership’s awareness of the new political reality it inhabits in the wake of the formation of the Independent Group.

But for those MPs who called for Williamson’s immediate suspension – and there are many of them – it will be evidence that the leadership is either unwilling or pathologically incapable of taking strong enough action.