On anti-Semitism, the Labour leadership is headed for another summer of discontent

Seventy-three MPs have signed an open letter demanding Jeremy Corbyn remove the Labour whip from Chris Williamson. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

Over 100 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, 73 of them MPs, have signed an open letter calling on Jeremy Corbyn to remove the whip from Chris Williamson, the Labour MP who has been readmitted to the party after being suspended in February for an allegedly anti-Semitic pattern of behaviour. Momentum founder Jon Lansman has said that Williamson “has to go”. Keith Vaz, one of the two members of the three-person NEC panel to vote for Williamson to be readmitted, is now also calling for the decision to be reversed.

It's a measure of how unpopular the decision to readmit Williamson is that the journalist who broke the news of Williamson's return, Kevin Schofield, was briefed by Labour sources that blaming the decision on the leadership is a “red herring”, as Vaz is a “longtime operator on the Labour right”.

It's true to say that Vaz's political history is largely on the Labour right, but he is also one of those MPs who have decided that their political interests lay in close alignment with what they perceive to be the interests of the Labour leadership. Vaz hasn't U-turned on the decision because he has only just learnt that Chris Williamson is not confined to the jazz world, but because of how the politics of the decision have played out.

In any case, Vaz's vote wouldn't have counted for anything were it not for the support of Huda Elmi, elected to Labour's ruling National Executive Committee on the Momentum slate of pro-Corbyn activists. These were votes cast with their eyes, incorrectly or not, on what they thought the Labour leader would want. That seems like a bigger sign of an institutional problem than anything done or said by Williamson himself. 

What will happen next? The risk for Jeremy Corbyn is that this is the moment when Labour MPs are at their most self-abasing. They are gearing up for their reselection battles and working to survive their trigger ballots. The mood in the PLP is always nervy during trigger ballots, even when they enjoyed the greatest protection of any sitting MP in the House of Commons. That no one really knows how the new rules will play out in practice is one reason why there aren't more signatures to the letter. It's one thing for Labour peers, who have no fear of the party membership to sign a critical letter. It's quite another for Labour MPs.

They may well have plenty of cause to do so. My read of the mood in the Labour grassroots is that actually, very few MPs will be deselected. It feels like even money which of the big two will end up with more MPs lost to deselection by the time this parliament is out. But what if, say, Louise Ellman or Margaret Hodge are deselected while Chris Williamson is not? If 73 Labour MPs are willing to turn private unease into a public letter today, what will the number be when MPs are safe and secure for another term?

That even when it’s in their interests to lie low and make warm noises about the leadership, 73 Labour MPs are willing to join the chorus of criticism is a sign that unless Williamson goes and goes quickly, another summer of discontent over Labour's handling of anti-Semitism may well be on its way.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Free trial CSS