Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has hit out at the party’s dismissal of claims of interference in cases of antisemitism, saying the response to the allegations was “deplorable”.
Former officials told a BBC Panorama documentary that they were undermined in their efforts to tackle antisemitism in the party – something Labour has denied.
Eight people told the programme that Labour’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, and general secretary Jennie Formby, interfered with investigations.
Four of them broke non-disclosure agreements, including former party general secretary Iain McNicol.
But a party spokesman slammed the programme, saying it “engaged in deliberate and malicious representations designed to mislead the public”.
They added that the officials who spoke to the BBC were “disaffected” individuals who have “both personal and political axes to grind”.
Labour has submitted a written complaint to the BBC.
Mr Watson said the programme was a “watershed moment” and made clear his displeasure with the party’s response to it.
“It must have taken great courage for them to whistleblow and for them to have to call out our core practices I think is deeply sad – and actually deplorable that we would just dismiss them as in some way sort of disaffected,” he said.
“They obviously feel very, very concerned that our procedures were not working. They felt it for some time.
“I can’t walk by on the other side and let them shoulder responsibility for calling all this bad behaviour out.”
Mr Watson said he felt “shocked” and “angry” – and would be lobbying for rule changes to be adopted at the party’s annual conference later this year.
Echoing his shadow cabinet colleague Sir Keir Starmer, Mr Watson said members should be automatically expelled if there is a “prima facie” case of antisemitism to answer.
Secondly, Mr Watson said he would be calling for a “completely independent process” to investigate complaints, “made up of people of standing from the Jewish community so that we can start to rebuild trust”.
In addition, he said members of the party’s National Executive Committee and shadow cabinet should see Labour’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The EHRC is investigating whether the party “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish”.
Mr Watson claimed he does not know the full scale of the party’s antisemitism problem, because his access to membership figures and the party’s membership database has been “restricted”.
MP Wes Streeting told Sky News that the party’s response to the programme was “absolutely sickening”.
The vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism tweeted before his appearance on Sky News that he would “gladly vacate” his slot to allow “any member of the shadow cabinet who wants to defend the party over Panorama”.
Mr Streeting told the All Out Politics show: “This morning, we’ve heard from Tom Watson the deputy leader of the Labour Party, I’m here as a Labour MP speaking up for what I consider to be real Labour values.
“Where’s the leadership of the Labour Party? Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”
London mayor Sadiq Khan said the leadership “needs to ensure right now that the party gets much better at tackling the scourge of antisemitism”.
And shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, speaking to Sky News before the Panorama programme was broadcast, refused to endorse the party’s claim that the broadcast was a “political intervention” by the BBC.
She added that the party needed to be “more disciplined” in dealing with antisemitism.
Reacting to the documentary, Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock said: “The shocking evidence shown in the devastating and heartbreaking Panorama documentary makes it clearer than ever that the Labour Party has deeply embedded institutional antisemitism in its processes, culture and leadership.”
Sky News has contacted Labour to ask for an interview in the wake of the Panorama broadcast, but the party has said no one is available.
A spokesman said on Wednesday: “We completely reject any claim that the Labour Party is antisemitic.
“Labour is taking decisive action against antisemitism, doubling the number of staff dedicated to dealing with complaints and cases.
“It appears these disaffected former officials include those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind.
“This throws into doubt their credibility as sources.
“Our records show that after these officials left and after Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which antisemitism cases have been dealt with, increased more than four-fold.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called on the BBC to investigate Labour’s complaints about the programme.