Jeremy Corbyn is facing calls to consider winding up Momentum, the grassroots group of his supporters, amid fears among Labour MPs that it could be used as a vehicle to plot against those who voted for airstrikes in Syria.
MPs raised fresh questions about the intent of the organisation, which is separate from Labour, after it joined Stop the War in urging people to lobby their representatives against voting for airstrikes in Syria.
Some of those 66 Labour MPs who voted in favour of bombing Islamic State targets have reported bullying and abuse online, with Neil Coyle, the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, reporting one threatening tweet to the police on Thursday.
The Metropolitan Police confirmed it was assessing a number of online threats relating to MPs. A spokesman said: “Police are aware of a number of threats made on social media relating to MPs. The assessment of these threats is ongoing.”
Deselection of MPs was openly being brought up by visitors to the Facebook pages of grassroots Momentum groups – including for areas that cover pro-airstrike MPs Harriet Harman and Coyle in Southwark, Chuka Umunna in Lambeth, and Heidi Alexander and Jim Dowd in Lewisham – although the national leadership of the group is opposed to this.
Ken Livingstone, a backer of Corbyn and co-chair of the party’s defence review, also gave a radio interview suggesting he would support the ousting of MPs who voted for war. “If I had an MP who had voted to bomb Syria then I would be prepared to support someone who was challenging them, as long as they were good on the other issues,” he said.
However, Momentum issued a statement on Thursday strongly denying its movement was “any threat to MPs who voted for bombing” and made clear that local groups would be barred from campaigning for deselection.
In a statement, the groups said: “We have made clear that we will not campaign for the deselection of any MP and will not permit any local Momentum groups to do so. The selection of candidates is entirely a matter for local party members and rightly so.”
The spokesman also said Momentum “strongly disapproves of anyone who engages in abusive behaviour towards MPs or anyone else, and threatening or bullying, whether they are outside the Labour party [as most are] or inside it”.
Separately, Corbyn has written to party members, along with deputy leader Tom Watson, to make clear the party’s zero tolerance for harassment. The party is also considering issuing a code of conduct for social media to members.
“As we have both said many times, abuse and intimidation have no place in politics. And the party as a whole will not accept such behaviour, from whatever quarter it comes,” the email said.
However, a number of MPs said the reassurances did not go far enough and questioned the need for a group of Corbyn supporters to have an organisation outside the Labour party.
Wayne David, the MP for Caerphilly, who voted in favour of airstrikes against Isis, was the first to call for Momentum to be disbanded.
“I think it should be wound up because it is clearly acting as a party within a party and some of the abuse of Labour MPs has come from Momentum supporters,” he said.
“I’m not convinced there is any real intent behind those good words. I’ve had a lot of unpleasant emails that are very much, ‘We are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and we demand you do this. And you’re a warmonger.’ It is not enough for Jeremy just to say this is bad and it shouldn’t happen. He should really take firm leadership against the people who are giving him an appalling name.”
Another Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, who voted against the airstrikes, said: “If there is evidence that Momentum has been orchestrating and organising intimidatory tactics against greatly valued colleagues, then there needs to be a full investigation into that and if necessary the organisation should be suspended and if necessary closed down.”
One shadow minister, Diana Johnson, who also voted against airstrikes, said she felt something more needed to be done by the Labour leadership to deal with online threats against MPs.
“The abuse they are getting, the words they are using are just horrendous. ‘Murderous cunt’ is one of the terms I have seen,” she said.
“Some of them are Labour members but others may be in some of the groups that have attached themselves to the Labour party. I’ve not had direct experience of Momentum in my constituency but others … have had real problems. And there are some other groups, not just Momentum.
“But many of these people are not even party members who feel they have the right to demand people are deselected. The leader has made comments about a kinder, nice type of politics but it feels like there is a nasty kind politics that is developing … And the leader has to do more than just say we’ve all got to be nicer to one another.”
Wes Streeting, the Ilford North MP, who voted against military intervention, told the BBC: “Given how much this is being facilitated by Momentum and the organisation set up in the wake of Jeremy’s leadership campaign, I don’t believe that Jeremy Corbyn as an individual somehow encourages the bullying of Labour MPs, but I think at the moment he’s in danger of permitting it by not showing strong enough leadership and clamping down on this.
“It’s completely inconceivable for anyone to argue that there hasn’t been a well-organised, systematic and well-resourced attempt to bully MPs into voting against airstrikes on Syria.”
Ann Coffey, MP for Stockport, who voted in favour of airstrikes, said she received messages calling her a “warmonger” and a “red Tory” and warning that she would have “blood on her hands”, which she believes is from an email account previously associated with Momentum.
“If you have that at the top of the party, what you have is permission to target MPs, permission has been given to target us,” she said.
But senior Labour sources rejected the suggestion that there was more that Corbyn could do to deal with online troublemakers. “Jeremy has repeated that there is no place in the party for abuse almost every single day,” the source said.
“There is a procedure to deal with such behaviour by Labour members and that is through the NEC. If there are threats from people outside the party then the procedure is not to moan to the media, it is to go to the NEC.”
The Stop the War Coalition appeared to take a much less conciliatory tone than Momentum, condemning the “whining complaints from those MPs who apparently do not like being lobbied”.
“If an MP is not robust enough to withstand emails and tweets, they should really not be voting for bombing other people – those who wish to be alone with their consciences would do better to consider a life of religious contemplation. Stop the War will continue to hold to democratic account all those MPs who vote for war,” the group’s chairman, Andrew Murray, and convener, Lindsey German, said.
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