Labour’s decision to expel Alastair Campbell was “spiteful”, the party’s deputy leader says, arguing it should be “listening rather than punishing”.
Tony Blair’s former spin doctor was kicked out of the party after revealing he had voted for the Liberal Democrats in the European elections.
But Tom Watson called for an “amnesty” for Labour members disillusioned by the party’s lack of “clarity” on Brexit.
Labour said supporting another party was “incompatible” with membership.
Mr Watson’s comments come after a number of other senior Labour figures confirmed they had voted for different parties in the European polls.
Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke confirmed he had voted Lib Dem, along with ex-MP Fiona MacTaggart, while former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said he voted Green.
Mr Clarke called Mr Campbell’s expulsion “a disgrace [that] only compounds Labour’s current political difficulties”.
Mr Campbell announced over Twitter on Tuesday that he had been expelled from the party, after revealing during the BBC’s election night broadcast how he had voted.
On the programme, he accused Labour of “letting its own supporters down” in “failing to devise a policy the country could unite around” over Brexit.
Speaking to reporters after his ousting, Mr Campbell – who is a vocal “People’s Vote” campaigner for another referendum – claimed “senior” members of Jeremy Corbyn’s team had sent “many, many messages of support” for him to vote for a different party.
He said he would appeal the decision, adding: “I will always be Labour.”
Labour’s share of the vote fell to 14% in last week’s European elections and several senior figures have blamed the party’s nuanced position on Brexit.
Mr Watson, who has also been putting pressure on his leader to back a further referendum, said to be a “broad church”, Labour needed “pluralism and tolerance to survive”.
“It is very clear that many thousands of Labour Party members voted for other parties last week.
“They were disappointed with the position on Brexit [and] they were sending [the] message that our position lacked clarity, and they were right.”
He added: “It is spiteful to resort to expulsions when [the party] should be listening to members.
“We should be listening to members rather than punishing them.”
‘Higher up the chain’
Lord Falconer, who served in Mr Blair’s government alongside Mr Campbell, accused Mr Corbyn’s leadership team of taking the “politically explosive” decision to expel his former colleague.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he did not believe Mr Campbell had broken membership rules, but if they had been, “maybe tens of thousands” of members had followed suit.
He said it seemed “absolutely inconceivable that a decision like that would have been taken simply by an official operating a process”, adding: “It’s bound to have been taken higher up the chain.”
Who is Alastair Campbell?
Mr Campbell was a political journalist before coming to prominence in Whitehall as a key member of the Labour PM’s staff in 1994.
He served as Mr Blair’s chief press secretary until 2000 and was a controversial figure, heavily involved in policy, including over the Iraq War.
Since leaving government, he has opened up about his struggles with depression and alcoholism, and works with a number of charities.
He also campaigns for the People’s Vote and is editor-at-large of The New European magazine.
Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman questioned why her party was so quick to expel Mr Campbell, but had allowed the “festering” of anti-Semitism – allegations that are now being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Alastair Campbell was expelled very quickly indeed, as I understand it without any kind of hearing, whereas the allegations of anti-Semitism just roll on and very little action is taken.”
The former challenger for the Labour leadership, Owen Smith, also accused his party of “double standards”.
“I think we’ve been incredibly slow to expel some people who look to me to be prima facie anti-Semites and others who have advocated violence and who have advocated voting for other parties on the hard left of politics,” he told BBC’s Newsnight.
“They’ve not been expelled and yet Alistair Campbell for doing what 20% of Labour voters did last Thursday has been expelled. Those are double standards and they are completely self-defeating.”
Others, though, have defended the party for following the rules.
Clare Short, a former Labour MP who quit Mr Blair’s cabinet, said the decision was “nothing special”, adding: “If you’re in the Brownies and you say I don’t think people should join the Brownies, you’ll probably be thrown out of the Brownies.”
Last week, veteran Conservative and pro-European Lord Heseltine admitted he planned to vote Lib Dem in the election. The party responded by effectively expelling him.