Jeremy Corbyn launched a veiled attack on his own deputy today as internal divisions over Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis threatened to escalate.
Speaking at the Durham Miners’ Gala, the party leader attacked “media hysteria” after a shocking BBC Panorama investigation on anti-Semitism in the party’s ranks aired last week.
He also threw his weight behind Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary, who is locked in a bitter battle with deputy leader Tom Watson over whether she and communications chief Seumas Milne interfered in anti-Semitism cases and deleted emails.
The leader said he was “very, very angry indeed” over the treatment of Formby, who has cancer, and he “joined with” Unite boss Len McCluskey, who moments earlier said Watson should be “fucking ashamed”.
Watson had demanded Formby be more transparent and hand over files she sent to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is also investigating the party over anti-Semitism.
“This past few weeks, you have seen the most incredible level of media hysteria directed at the labour movement and the Labour Party,” Corbyn said, adding reporting had been “extraordinary, even by the excessive standards” of some outlets.
He claimed the labour movement was “under attack day in day out” from the media, claiming they were opposed to “the programme we offer” rather than individual politicians.
In a Donald Trump-like attack on the media, he went on: “The programme that Labour offers, of redistribution of power, of wealth, of investment in a decent future, of an end to the privileges of the few in order to advance the cause and the need of the many – that is what they are upset about.”
Turning to Formby, he said the media has “come after us individually”, adding: “I don’t care what they say about me. I’m not interested.
“But when they come after people who cannot reply, that is what makes me very, very angry indeed.
“When you attack those in work for the job they are trying to do and when they attack individuals in our movement and so I join with others in sending a message: get well soon and good l, Jennie Formby. You do not deserve what the media has said and done.”
Staunch Corbyn ally and Unite boss, Len McCluskey, used his speech to tell Watson he should be “fucking ashamed”.
After hitting out at the Tory government, McCluskey told the crowd: “And whilst I’m talking about right wing critics, it would be remiss of me not to mention the disgraceful attacks levelled at our general secretary Jennie Formby.
“Wrong in normal circumstances but when Jennie is fighting cancer, they are despicable, so I have a simple message for Tom Watson and his pals in the media: you should fucking well be ashamed of yourself.
“Jennie, our message to you is that the Durham Miners’ Gala stands with you.”
Corbyn’s decision to side with Formby will fuel speculation that Watson could face a confidence motion in the coming months.
The Durham festival also saw speeches from shadow labour minister Laura Pidcock and shadow business minister Rebecca Long-Bailey, both of whom have been tipped for leadership.
Pidcock, whose own constituency is North West Durham, received rapturous applause from the crowd, which included a large number of trade union activists.
A Labour source told HuffPost: “Watson could face a no-confidence motion. It’s not at the top of anyone’s agenda but a lot of members feel that he has overstepped the mark.”
In an interview ahead of the BBC Panorama programme, Corbyn claimed there were “many, many inaccuracies” in the episode, which included interviews from staff turned whistleblowers.
“The programme adopted a pre-determined position on its own website before it was broadcast,” he said.
“We’ve made very clear what our processes are.”
Asked whether he will publish Labour’s response to the EHRC inquiry, he said the investigation had not happened yet and that he will cooperate fully.
“Anti-Semitism is a poison, it is vile, it is wrong,” he said. “It is a poison in our society and any other society.”
He added: “It is not acceptable in any form.”