Chris Williamson’s legal fight against his suspension from the Labour Party over allegations of antisemitism has reached the High Court.
The Derby North MP was suspended in February after he claimed that Labour had been “too apologetic” in response to criticism of its handling of antisemitism allegations.
He was readmitted to the party and issued with a formal warning following a hearing of a National Executive Committee (NEC) antisemitism panel in June – prompting an outcry from MPs, peers and Jewish groups.
But he was suspended again in July after a second panel reviewed the decision to reinstate him and found it “cannot safely stand”.
Mr Williamson has since raised nearly £60,000 to fund his legal challenge to his suspension from the party.
At a hearing in London on Thursday, the MP’s barrister Aileen McColgan described the decision to reopen the case as a “hasty volte-face” made as a result of “howls of outrage from the press” at Mr Williamson’s readmission to Labour.
She submitted that the decision to reinstate him was “final within the Labour Party rules” and that reviewing the case was “manifestly unfair”.
Ms McColgan said it was also unfair that a separate suspension was imposed on September 3 over additional allegations of misconduct, which were “similar in nature” to the first set of allegations.
She said: “In the instant case, the issue of the second set of allegations against the claimant contributes to the impression that the defendant is determined to have him removed from the party regardless of considerations of fairness, and has the hallmarks of a witch hunt against the claimant.
“It is manifestly unfair and therefore contrary to the defendant’s rule book and to the common law.”
Ms McColgan told Mr Justice Pepperall that there was no challenge to the June 26 decision to give Mr Williamson a warning, and that his case was about whether the decision to refer his disciplinary to a second panel was within Labour Party rules – submitting that the party was “not entitled” to do so.
The barrister added that the September allegations “for the most part concern the claimant’s measured and reasonable exercise of freedom of expression … or are premised on the idea of ‘guilt by association'”.
She submitted: “It appears from the timing … that the purpose of the decision to raise these allegations now, and to impose a second suspension on the claimant, is to seek to ensure that he will remain suspended even if this claim is successful and that he will therefore remain disqualified from selection in the forthcoming general election.”
Rachel Crasnow QC, representing Labour, said the decision, which was “made in good faith”, was permitted by the party’s rules as all disputes panel decisions were “provisional” on approval by the NEC’s organisation committee.
In written submissions, she said the full disputes panel of the NEC decided to remit Mr Williamson’s case for review after hearing that one of the original panel members, MP Keith Vaz, had raised objections about “the release of confidential information from that panel and concerns around his (Mr Vaz’s) health at the time it was convened”.
Ms Crasnow said that, under Labour Party rules, the June decision to readmit Mr Williamson with a formal warning was “provisional” on approval by the organisation committee, a process she said is intended “to ensure consistency and as a check or review”.
She added: “It is true that the claimant was not told on June 26 that his warning was provisional upon organisation committee approval – but the rules nonetheless provide for the organisation committee to approve disputes panel decisions.”
Ms Crasnow pointed out that the NEC disputes panel decided to remit Mr Williamson’s case after a “free vote”, in which 16 voted in favour and six against with two abstentions.
She submitted that the July decision “was not taken on the basis of negative press commentary: the discussion focused on the abilities of Keith Vaz MP and confidentiality concerns”.
But she added: “It is not reasonable to claim that press commentary, expressing and shaping as it does public opinion within the UK electorate, must necessarily be an irrelevant consideration for a political party.”
At the conclusion of the hearing on Thursday afternoon, Mr Justice Pepperall reserved his judgment, which he said he would aim to deliver in the next couple of weeks.
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