Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has delivered a stark warning to Jeremy Corbyn that he must “eradicate” anti-Semitism in the party if he is ever to become prime minister.
Following a tumultuous week which saw nine MPs quit in protest at Mr Corbyn’s leadership – with eight joining a new centrist grouping with rebel Tories – Mr Watson said the party was in a “perilous” situation.
He predicted more Labour MPs – as well as peers and councillors – would walk away unless the party was able to demonstrate that it had changed and was once again a “broad church”.
He said he would be convening a group of MPs from Labour’s centrist, social democratic tradition, who were largely excluded from the shadow cabinet, to ensure their voice was heard within the party.
“That social democratic voice has to be heard because the only way we will keep the Labour Party unified and prohibit other colleagues from potentially leaving the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party),” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“I am not raising a rebel flag. I am standing up for pluralism within our rank because that is the only way were are going to hold our consensus together.
“Be in no doubt, the situation is perilous for our party and we need to act and we need to act very quickly.”
Mr Watson made clear a key test for Mr Corbyn would be tackling anti-Semitism with the Labour ranks after the Jewish MP Luciana Berger was driven out by “racist bullies”.
Mr Corbyn last week insisted the party did not have a “wide scale” problem with bullying, however Mr Watson said it was clear reforms introduced by general secretary Jennie Formby had failed to deal with the issue and that action was needed.
“We are in a crisis. Jeremy needs to understand that to be in Number 10 he needs to change the Labour Party. We have got to eradicate anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish racism in all its forms,” he said.
“This week I have had 50 complaints of anti-Semitism from my party colleagues which I shared with Jeremy. I think he needs to take a personal lead on examining those cases and, if necessary, recommend to our NEC (national executive committee) what has to be done.
“The test for him as leader is to eradicate anti-Semitism. It is not Labour Party members who will be the judge of that, it is the British Jewish community.
“I think he understands now that if he is ever to be prime minister he needs to rebuild that trust.”
In an olive branch to critics of Mr Corbyn, Mr Watson said the party was moving closer towards backing a second EU referendum – a key demand for many those MPs who quit, which Mr Corbyn has previously been reluctant to support.
Mr Watson said they were looking at amendment drawn up by backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson which would enable Labour to back Theresa May’s Brexit deal as long as it was put to a referendum.
“We are heading in that direction, but there is still more play in the days ahead,” he said.
His comments were echoed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who said a referendum was “increasingly on the agenda”.
“We’re working with them to see if we can have a re-draft of that amendment which people could vote for, and I think there’s a high possibility we could,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics.