A prominent ally of Jeremy Corbyn is facing investigation by the party after he apologised for suggesting Labour had “given too much ground” in its response to complaints of anti-Semitism.
Derby North MP Chris Williamson regretted his “choice of words” and insisted he had not intended to minimise the seriousness of anti-Semitism.
But his apology was rejected as “half-hearted” by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which sent a formal complaint calling for Mr Corbyn to withdraw the Labour whip.
And there was a furious response from Labour MPs, with deputy leader Tom Watson saying the apology was “not good enough” and issuing a formal request for Mr Williamson’s suspension.
Labour had already branded Mr Williamson’s actions as “completely unacceptable” after he booked a room in Parliament for the screening of a film about an activist suspended over anti-Semitism complaints.
And the row was reignited by video footage showing him telling a meeting of the grassroots Momentum group that Labour’s reaction to anti-Semitism allegations had been “too apologetic” and had led to the party being “demonised”.
The video, obtained by the Yorkshire Post, was recorded at a meeting in Sheffield in the wake of last week’s resignation of eight Labour MPs to join the Independent Group.
Mr Williamson was also filmed saying he had celebrated the resignation of MP Joan Ryan, who quit Labour in protest over the handling of anti-Semitism and bullying complaints.
Theresa May seized on the issue during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, challenging Mr Corbyn to suspend the man he once praised as a “very good, very effective Labour MP”.
Moments before the PM spoke, Mr Williamson issued a statement insisting he had been “an anti-racist all my life” and that it pained him to think that anyone should believe he intended to “minimise the cancerous and pernicious nature of anti-Semitism”.
Promising to be “more considered in my remarks” in future, Mr Williamson said: “I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour Party has responded to the ongoing fight against anti-Semitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle anti-Semitism.
“Our movement can never be ‘too apologetic’ about racism within our ranks. Whilst it is true that there have been very few cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party – something I believe is often forgotten when discussing this issue – it is also true that those few are too many.”
A Labour spokesman said that Mr Williamson had been issued with a “notice of investigation for a pattern of behaviour”, but has not been suspended from the party.
The spokesman said the comments were “deeply offensive” and that “downplaying the problem of anti-Semitism makes it harder for us to tackle it”.
He added: “Chris Williamson has rightly apologised and
withdrawn his remarks, and has been issued with a notice of investigation for a pattern of behaviour, and is not suspended during the investigation.”
But Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson tweeted: “Chris Williamson has produced a long-winded and heavily caveated apology. It is not good enough. If it was in my gift I would have removed the whip from him already.”
And Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl said: “Chris Williamson trolls those who oppose anti-Semitism, repeatedly siding with the anti-Semites over the Jews. The two issues reported yesterday were just the latest in a long series of offences.
“Jeremy Corbyn must remove the whip at once if he wants to retain the faintest image of himself as an anti-racist. Anything less removes any semblance of leadership and reveals only the most naked moral cowardice.”
Ruth Smeeth, vice-chairwoman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, branded Mr Williamson “a disgrace” and said “he needs to go”.
She told BBC Radio 5 Live: “He is now becoming notorious for Jew-baiting, for saying things which are completely and utterly outrageous, for aligning himself with people who are incredibly offensive.”
And she added: “Those views are incompatible with the aims and values of the Labour Party. He has no place in my party. He should leave. I really hope that we’ll see the whip removed today.
“I think that that is the least that they can do to start salvaging the reputation of the Labour Party on this issue.”
Senior backbencher Dame Margaret Hodge said she had written to chief whip Nick Brown to call for the removal of the whip from Mr Williamson.
And former deputy leader Harriet Harman warned: “We are supposed to be rebuilding the shattered confidence of the Jewish community in Labour. This will only further undermine it.”
Mr Williamson was first elected MP for Derby North in 2010, but was unseated in the 2015 general election.
He ran again in 2017, this time receiving a visit from Mr Corbyn during the general election campaign, and won.
Mr Williamson was later made a shadow emergency services minister, but left by mutual agreement six months later after suggesting council tax should be doubled on more expensive homes.