The UK Labour party was rocked late Wednesday by the shock resignation of deputy leader Tom Watson, who has long-challenged leader Jeremy Corbyn over issues like Brexit and dealing with the rise of rampant anti-Semitism in the party.
In a letter to Corbyn, Watson said he would not run to retain his seat in next month’s generals. He insisted his reasons for standing down were “personal, not political” and that he wanted to “start a different kind of life.”
Watson published his letter in a tweet and said he would still campaign for some Labour party candidates in the election.
“I’m as committed to Labour as ever. I will spend this election fighting for brilliant Labour candidates and a better future for our country,” he wrote.
After 35 years in full-time politics, I've decided to step down and will be campaigning to overcome the Tory-fuelled public health crisis. I'm as committed to Labour as ever. I will spend this election fighting for brilliant Labour candidates and a better future for our country. pic.twitter.com/qGqiKTJ6br
— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) November 6, 2019
However, his resignation could symbolize the end of a long-running battle over the identity of Labour party between moderates like Watson and Corbyn’s hard-left faction.
Watson was a prominent supporter of a holding a second Brexit referendum and urging Labour to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU in any future vote.
Corbyn and many of his allies have been reluctant to take that position, partly over fears it would alienate those Labour voters who backed Brexit in the June 2016 referendum.
Watson has also been a major critic of Labour’s handling of an ongoing crisis over anti-Semitism, with claims that the party has become a haven for anti-Semites. Those charges have greatly intensified since Corbyn — himself accused of anti-Semitism, including by some of his own MPs — won the leadership in 2015, with many longtime supporters defecting in protest or calling for him to step down.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews has accused Corbyn of encouraging anti-Semitic rhetoric and at times engaging in it, though he disputes the claim.
Watson also differs sharply from Corbyn on Israel. While the party leader is a steadfast critic of the Jewish state, Watson is a member of Labour Friends of Israel.
Last year, amid a furor over Labour’s initial refusal to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance‘s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism over the alliance’s language around criticism of Israel, Watson said the party risked descending into “eternal shame” if it did not deal with its definition of anti-Semitism.
“This is one of those moments when we have to take a long, hard look at ourselves, stand up for what is right and present the party as fit to lead the nation – or disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment,” Watson told The Observer, the Guardian’s Sunday publication, at the time.
Waltson’s stance sparked a long campaign by some Corbyn loyalists in the party against him, culminating in a failed bid in September to oust him from his No.2 position.
His resignation also signifies the latest high-profile member of Labour Friends of Israel to quit the party, following the departure of Joan Ryan, the non-Jewish head of LFI, and last month’s resignation of veteran UK Labour Party Jewish lawmaker Dame Louise Ellman.
“I believe that Jeremy Corbyn would be a danger to the country [if elected prime minister], a danger to the Jewish community as well, but a danger to the country too,” Ellman told the Times, leaving the party after 55 years.
Corbyn said Sunday that British Jews have nothing to fear if his party wins the election, amid reports that many members of the Jewish community would consider leaving the country if he comes to power.
Those comments by Corbyn came after the Jewish Labour Movement said it would only campaign for a select few Labour candidates.
“Anti-Semitism and racism is an evil within our society. I’ve done everything to confront it throughout my life, and will always do so,” Corbyn told the Guardian.
“We want this country to be safe for all people. An attack on a synagogue, an attack on a mosque, an attack on a church – an attack on a person walking down the street because they’re perceived to be different from the rest of us – we simply can’t tolerate it.”
Even though the issue of Brexit is set to dominate the December vote, many Jewish voters, even those opposed to the Conservative vow to take Britain out of Europe, feel they cannot vote for Labour.
According to a poll published last week, just seven percent of British Jews said they would even consider supporting Corbyn’s party.
Last September it was reported that nearly 40% of British Jews would “seriously consider emigrating” if Corbyn became prime minister. And in March, a survey revealed that 87% of Jews view Corbyn as anti-Semitic.
Jewish groups have accused Corbyn, a far-left politician, of allowing a massive rise in anti-Semitism within the ranks of the party that was once considered the natural home of British Jewry. Thousands of cases of alleged hate speech against Jews have been recorded within Labour since 2015, when Corbyn was elected leader.
In April, Corbyn was found to have authored a glowing foreword to a book that claims that Jews control global financial systems and describes them as “men of a single and peculiar race.”
In addition, the Hamas terror group has thanked Corbyn for his solidarity in recognizing Palestinian mourning over the 71st anniversary of the formation of the State of Israel.
The Labour leader has in the past been criticized for calling terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” when inviting members for a parliamentary meeting in 2009. He later downplayed the comment and said he regretted using the term.
Last year it emerged that in 2014 Corbyn attended a ceremony that honored the terrorists behind the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. He later said, “I was present when [a wreath] was laid, I don’t think I was actually involved in it.”