Labour has suspended the former London mayor Ken Livingstone “for bringing the party into disrepute” after MPs accused of him of antisemitism and making offensive comments about Hitler supporting Zionism.
In his first comments on the row engulfing Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, said: “We are not tolerating antisemitism in any form whatsoever in our party.”
More than 20 MPs, including Sadiq Khan, Labour’s current London mayoral candidate, had called for Livingstone to be expelled over the remarks he made while trying to defend the suspended Bradford MP Naz Shah.
The party’s chief whip also called in John Mann, a Labour MP, to discuss his confrontation with Livingstone at the BBC in which he called him a “disgusting Nazi apologist”.
A Labour spokesman said: “The chief whip has made it absolutely clear to John Mann that it is completely inappropriate for Labour members of parliament to be involved in very public rows on the television.
“She was very clear about how seriously this was viewed. John Mann fully accepted and understands this.”
Pressure mounted on Corbyn to suspend Livingstone after MPs made their anger known. It is understood the deputy leader, Tom Watson, made clear he was angry and offended by the comments and concerned about their potentially damaging effect on the electoral prospects of hundreds of candidates.
While on a regional tour, Corbyn said suspending people who made offensive comments was about “sending a message” and such cases would be investigated.
“There were grave concerns about the language he’d used. We had a discussion about it and decided we would suspend him and he would go through an investigation by the party.”
He said anyone who claimed the party was not “cracking down” on
antisemitism was wrong.
A Labour spokesman said: “Ken Livingstone has been suspended by the Labour party, pending an investigation, for bringing the party into disrepute. The chief whip has summoned John Mann MP to discuss his conduct.”
It is understood Livingstone was suspended because the remarks were considered highly inflammatory rather than necessarily antisemitic.
There is some anxiety at the top of the party that the row about antisemitism should not be allowed to shut down debate about a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict – an issue on which Corbyn has campaigned for many decades.
At the same time, supporters of Corbyn fear the issue of antisemitism is being used to undermine his leadership. It is understood Mann’s conduct will be seriously investigated and viewed in the context of a pattern of behaviour.
The decision to suspend Livingstone was taken after he appeared on BBC London to claim that, while Shah’s remarks were “over the top”, she had said nothing that amounted to antisemitism.
Shah has apologised and been suspended from the party for promoting a Facebook post in 2014 suggesting Israelis should be deported and claiming “the Jews are rallying” to support a poll about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
During his interview, Livingstone said Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews” and claimed there was a “well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticises Israel policy as antisemitic”.
The veteran politician said accusations of antisemitism were part of a campaign against the Labour leader.
“Frankly, there’s been an attempt to smear Jeremy Corbyn and his associates as antisemitic from the moment he became leader. The simple fact is we have the right to criticise what is one of the most brutal regimes going in the way it treats the Palestinians,” he said.
Livingstone was confronted at the BBC studios by Mann, who called him a “disgusting Nazi apologist” and then repeated his accusations to Livingstone live on the BBC’s Daily Politics, saying: “I think you’ve lost it, Mr Livingstone … What are you on at the moment? You certainly shouldn’t be on Labour’s national executive.”
It is the second time Livingstone has been suspended from Labour; the first being when he put himself forward as an independent candidate for the London mayoralty in 2000. It is also not the first time he has been in hot water over accusations of antisemitism, having been investigated for likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard in 2005.
Khan said on Twitter that the comments were “appalling and inexcusable”, and there must be no place for them in the party. Labour MPs Jess Phillips, Yvette Cooper, Wes Streeting, Tristram Hunt, Stella Creasy, Liz Kendall, Conor McGinn and John Woodcock were also among those calling for Livingstone to be suspended.
Chris Bryant was the first shadow cabinet minister to criticise Livingstone, telling the House of Commons he was sick and tired of people trying to explain away antisemitism, adding: “Yes I’m talking to you Ken Livingstone.”
David Lammy, the Labour MP and former minister, had hinted he could not stay in the party if Livingstone remained, tweeting that he “simply cannot reconcile being in the same party as someone with these views”.
Allies of Corbyn had also turned on Livingstone. Jon Lansman, the Momentum founder who helped run Corbyn’s leadership campaign, said: “A period of silence from Ken Livingstone is overdue, especially on antisemitism racism and Zionism. It’s time he left politics altogether.”
Woodcock, a former chair of the Labour Friends of Israel, said Livingstone was chair of Labour’s international policy commission, and that his comments suggested he must be “actively seeking suspension and notoriety”.
The rows over Shah and Livingstone have been going on amid wider claims that the party has failed to get a grip on antisemitism among some of its members.
David Cameron said it was clear Labour had a problem with antisemitism.
“Antisemitism is like racism: it is unacceptable in a modern political party and every political party has got to deal with it,” the prime minister said at a pro-EU referendum campaign event in Peterborough. “As I said to Jeremy Corbyn some weeks ago when I was shouted down in the House of Commons and called disgraceful, they’ve got a problem and they’ve got to deal with it.”
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Thursday 28th April 2016 16.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010