Tom Watson has said he believes there was “some participation” from Jeremy Corbyn’s office in the disciplinary process of dealing with accusations of anti-Semitism in Labour.
The party’s deputy leader claimed there was “almost a permissive culture” towards anti-Jewish racism in the ranks, after damning claims about the party’s handling of accusations were broadcast.
Eight people told the BBC’s Panorama programme they were undermined in their attempts to tackle anti-Semitism in the party.
Former officials alleged that Labour’s director of communications Seumas Milne and its general secretary Jennie Formby interfered with investigations.
Four of those who spoke out, including former Labour general secretary Iain McNicol, broke non-disclosure agreements to do so.
Labour has denied the claims and written a complaint to the BBC.
Mr Watson said the party had failed to address the “permissive culture” that people can use anti-Semitic language in meetings and on social media.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In the last four years, since Jeremy and I were elected leader and deputy leader of the party, there is a growing belief that there is a sickness in our party, that this kind of abuse has been in some way allowed.
“That there’s almost a permissive culture that people can use anti-Jewish, racist language both in our meetings and to each other on social media and we’ve failed to address that properly.”
He went on: “It does seem to me that there is obviously some participation in these disciplinary cases from the leader’s office, which means they are responsible for dealing with the rebuilding of trust in the Jewish community.”
The frontbencher said there needed to be a rule change to “auto-exclude” party members who have a “prima facie case to answer of using anti-Semitic behaviours and language” – and claimed Mr Corbyn was the “only one” who could fix the issue.
“I think we need a rule change – and this has been argued by others like Keir Starmer and Gordon Brown – that allows us to auto-exclude from the membership people who have a prima facie case to answer of using anti-Semitic behaviours and language within our own structures.”
Three senior peers quit the Labour whip earlier this week in protest at the handling of the issue under Mr Corbyn’s leadership.
Lord Levy said he considers leaving Labour every day over its handling of anti-Semitism and has “immense respect” for his fellow peers who have resigned the whip.
He told Today: “I consider it every day and I grill myself every day because it is so difficult to stay in this party.
“I have immense respect for the three peers who left.”
Gideon Falter, chief executive of Campaign Against Antisemitism, said the show was “heartbreaking”.
He said: “Former Labour officials have been compelled by their conscience to speak out, revealing the scale of the duplicity behind Labour’s failure to address the party’s anti-Semitism crisis.
“Whilst claiming to act against Jew hatred, Jeremy Corbyn’s agents and allies have carefully protected anti-Semites.
“It was heartbreaking to watch the testimony of honourable lifelong Labour officials contemplating suicide and suffering breakdowns because of the actions of Mr Corbyn and his team,” Mr Falter said.
“The charade of Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-racist activist has been blown apart. Mr Corbyn’s support for anti-Semites and his team’s protection of anti-Semites demonstrate that Mr Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite who is unfit to hold any public office.”
Nick Lowles, chief executive of Hope Not Hate, said the Panorama programme “was depressing and gut-wrenching”.
“It showed interference in what is supposed to be an independent process. It showed the downplaying of serious allegations. It showed an appalling lack of understanding of the hurt, and fear, felt by Jewish party members and the wider Jewish community,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sam Matthews, Labour’s former head of complaints, said he had been pushed to the brink of suicide by the issues in the party.
“After Jeremy became leader, he opened the floodgates and allowed people to join the Labour Party who never would have been allowed anywhere near it in the past,” he told The Jewish Chronicle.
“Whether he himself is an anti-Semite or not is an irrelevance. He is the biggest friend anti-Semites have had since the Second World War.”
A Labour spokesman said the party rejected any claim it is anti-Semitic and said it complained in advance to the BBC “over the way the programme was put together and its choice of a presenter who has expressed overt personal and political hostility to Jeremy Corbyn’s politics”.
“We stand in solidarity with Jewish people, and we’re taking decisive action to root out anti-Semitism from our movement and society,” the spokesman said.
“The Panorama programme was not a fair or balanced investigation. It was a seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic, which breached basic journalistic standards, invented quotes and edited emails to change their meaning.
“It was an overtly biased intervention by the BBC in party political controversy.
“Despite claims made in the programme, Labour is taking decisive action against anti-Semitism. Since Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which anti-Semitism cases have been dealt with has increased more than four-fold.”