Video: PM steps in as Ken Livingstone row engulfs Labour

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Theresa May has accused Labour of “betraying” the Jewish community by letting Ken Livingstone “off the hook” over accusations of anti-Semitism.

The Prime Minister launched the Conservatives campaign for the May local elections with a stinging attack on Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, saying the party is pursuing “ideological obsessions” while ignoring the priorities of local people.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn

In a speech in Nottinghamshire, she framed the contest as a choice between the competence of Conservative councils and the “chaos and disarray” of the rest.

She said the Liberal Democrats were only interested in securing a second EU referendum, Ukip were too divided to stand up for ordinary people while the SNP and Plaid Cymru offered “divisive, tunnel-vision nationalisms”.

She said the decision that Mr Livingstone could remain a member of the Labour Party after claiming Hitler had supported Zionism showed the extent to which it had moved away from the centre ground of British politics.

“In fact, when you look at it closely, these local elections present a clear and informative choice.

“The competence of a strong Conservative council, focused on the priorities of local people, keeping local taxes down and delivering high quality local services,” she said.

“It could not be clearer that the Labour Party is now a long way away from the common, centre ground of British politics today.”

Mr Corbyn yesterday urged Jewish supporters across Yorkshire not to quit the party, as Labour officials came under fire for failing to expel Ken Livingstone over allegations of anti-Semitism.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post in the wake of the National Constitutional Committee’s (NCC) to suspend the former London mayor, Mr Corbyn called on Mr Livingstone to recognise the “enormous hurt” his comments have caused.

His intervention follows criticism from Labour MPs and peers, many of whom suggested the party’s failure to expel Mr Livingstone undermined its claim to have a “zero-tolerance” approach to racism. It also follows revelations that a number of high-profile supporters are reconsidering their membership as a result of the decision, with the vice-chairman of Leeds Sinai synagogue among those announcing their resignation.

The NCC inquiry into Mr Livingstone was sparked by comments he made during a radio interview last April, in which he suggested Hitler was a supporter of Zionism – the movement to create a Jewish state in the Middle East.

This gave rise to accusations of anti-Semitism, although Mr Livingstone has consistently defended his claims.

The NCC was widely expected to expel the former mayor on Tuesday, but after confirming he had breached party rules relating to prejudicial conduct, they issued a one-year suspension including a ban on holding office.

This was met with outrage by MP and religious leaders, with former leader Ed Miliband, and former shadow cabinet members Yvette Cooper and Michael Dugher among those calling for a tougher penalty.

Taking to Twitter yesterday, Mr Miliband said: “I was deeply offended by Ken’s original remarks... The strength of our response goes directly to Labour’s ability to be a credible vehicle to tackle prejudice and hate in all its forms.”

Mr Dugher said: “This looks like an embarrassing fudge. The current reluctance of the party to apparently take swift and severe action against Livingstone does us no credit whatsoever.”

The former councillor and vice-chairman of Leeds Sinai Synagogue Jonathan Lewis also took to social media to confirm he was resigning his membership of the party. He wrote that he felt “physically sick and betrayed”, adding: “My Judaism and membership of the party are no longer compatible.”

Responding to the criticisms in an interview with regional journalists, Mr Corbyn stressed that the NCC is independent of the party leadership. However, he went on to state that anti-Semitism “has no place in our society...[or] our party” and he did not “want anyone to resign from the party” as a result of Mr Livingstone’s comments.

“I was in Leeds for the funeral of Sir Gerald Kaufman and I spoke to some people there... we were talking there about the incredible contribution made to the Labour movement by the Jewish community in London and in Leeds and other places,” he said. “It’s that Jewish tradition of solidarity... that I really do admire.”

Mr Corbyn also confirmed that Mr Livingstone’s “subsequent comments and actions” have been referred to Labour’s National Executive Committee.