Anti-Corbyn Labour officials covertly diverted election funds away from winnable seats, Forde report finds

Long-awaited Forde inquiry finds evidence of ‘straightforward attempts’ to hinder Labour leadership

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 19 July 2022 13:45 BST
Jeremy Corbyn tells Boris Johnson his legacy will be of 'poverty, inequality and insecurity'

Anti-Corbyn Labour officials secretly diverted 2017 election resources to candidates hostile to the leadership and away from “winnable seats”, a party inquiry has found.

The long-awaited Forde report, which has been seen in full by The Independent ahead of its publication, says senior staff hostile to Jeremy Corbyn set up a parallel operation to “covertly divert money and personnel” to their favoured candidates.

The report, commissioned by Keir Starmer in the early days of his leadership, found that a “toxic” atmosphere prevailed in Labour HQ, with staff communicating via “WhatsApp ‘echo chambers’”, which amplified hostility and “allowed the boundaries of acceptable conduct to become blurred”.

The Forde inquiry was set up to look into allegations detailed in a party dossier leaked in April 2020 which contained transcripts of private WhatsApp messages from staff suggesting officials worked to politically undermine the party’s leadership.

“Members of the SMT WhatsApp groups were focused on what they saw as protecting the party from Jeremy Corbyn rather than helping him to advance his agenda,” the Forde report concluded.

“Though staff did not generally seek to exacerbate LOTO’s [Leader of the Opposition’s office] operational problems, which were seen as self-inflicted, they often passively observed or even welcomed them.

“Some comments do appear to show straightforward attempts to hinder LOTO’s work (in their view, for the party’s greater good).”

WhatsApp transcripts included in the original 2020 dossier analysed by the inquiry had suggested that some staffers became despondent as Labour climbed in the polls during the election campaign despite their efforts.

One election night chat log showed that upon seeing exit polls showing Labour had overturned the Tory majority, one senior official said the result was the “opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years”, describing themselves and their allies as “silent and grey-faced” and in need of counselling.

But perhaps the most controversial of the claims in the original dossier was that staff diverted tens of thousands of pounds away from winnable sets to protect candidates hostile to the leadership.

On this matter, the Forde report concluded: “Some senior HQ staff had the ability to implement resourcing decision covertly.

“A handful of staff in Ergon House created an additional fund for printing costs under the code GEL001 (spending some £135,000 in total on campaigns supportive of sitting largely anti-Corbyn MPs and not on campaigns for pro-Corbyn candidates in potentially winnable seats).

The report says staff “genuinely considered that a primarily defensive strategy would secure the best result for the party”, though it notes that “some had mixed feelings about what the better than anticipated result would mean for the party’s future and their own roles”.

The Ergon House operation “covertly” diverted money and personnel “without authority” and that whilst “not illegal” it was “wrong”, the report concludes.

The report says that in general “a toxic atmosphere” prevailed in the party, stating that “Jeremy Corbyn’s election marked the first time that the leader was seen as so out of step with the predominant political view of most of the permanent staff”, meaning that “conflict reached a level of intensity not previously seen”.

“Among senior HQ staff, communication via WhatsApp ‘echo chambers’ amplified the hostility and allowed the boundaries of acceptable conduct to become blurred; this resulted in conduct on the part of some senior staff which was wholly unacceptable,” it said.

The inquiry also found “undoubted overt and underlying racism and sexism apparent in some of the content of the WhatsApp messages between the party’s most senior staff” as well as a wider culture of discrimination.

Describing the party as being in “an untenable situation” on discrimination, the inquiry said: “The evidence received pointed to a perception that some protected characteristics were regarded, by the party, more highly than others. Equally, this meant that some were less highly regarded.

“One recurrent theme during the witness interviews was a professed commitment to combatting discrimination towards those with protected characteristics. There was a near universal acceptance of the need for the Party to be a ‘broad church’.

“However, many of the individuals laying claim to these worthy ambitions had a very strong, even unbending view of what the Party should represent, who it should represent and how it should fight elections effectively. It was concerning to me that many failed to examine their own actions which were demonstrably unlikely to achieve that aim.”

While the Forde inquiry says the original dossier and its leaking was clearly a “factional” tool, it says: “There are relatively few examples where we think the leaked report’s framing is substantially misleading ... In the main, our view is that the messages quoted in the leaked report fairly represent the tone and contents of the discussions about Jeremy Corbyn, this staff, and the party’s Left in the SMT WhatsApp groups, and across the selected instant message charts. There are a significant number of comments in the transcripts which were not quoted in the leaked report but which demonstrate the same kind of hostility as those that were.”

But the report also warns that Labour in 2017 was in a “debilitating inertia, factionalism and infighting which then distracted from what all profess to be a common cause – electoral success”.

Labour won 40 per cent of the vote in 2017, removing Theresa May’s majority against expectations and ushering in a politically febrile hung parliament. The party went on to lose badly in 2019, riven by splits in its voter coalition over how to respond to Brexit and Mr Corbyn’s by then low personal ratings.

The Forde inquiry also looked into the evidence that Mr Corbyn and his office or allies interfered in antisemitism complaints processes.

The inquiry found that it had “not received clear and convincing documentary evidence that there was a systemic attempt by the elected leadership or LOTO to interfere unbidden in the disciplinary process in order to undermine the party’s response to allegations of antisemitism”.

It continues: “In our view, the problem was principally a lack of clarity (on both sides) about how involved LOTO should be; and this was aggravated by the mutual antagonism between HQ staff and LOTO.”

The report adds that while LOTO staff “provided input into specific cases after it was sought” this was done “for the most part, reasonable and in good faith”. These contributions were then used by Mr Corbyn’s factional opponents “to form the basis of wholly misleading media reports which suggested LOTO staff had aggressively imposed themselves on the process against HQ’s wishes”.

The report says that there “were structural problems with the party’s disciplinary system which meant it was not fit for purpose”, which were “seriously compounded by factionalism”.

One example given by the report is that staff were “diverted” to take part in “validation exercises” ahead of the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections which “cemented a lack of trust between LOTO and HQ which further hampered the party’s ability to deal with antisemitism complaints effectively”.

The report says both supporters and internal opponents of Mr Corbyn could be accused of “weaponising the issue and failing to recognise the seriousness of antisemitism”.

Labour MP Jon Trickett, previously the party’s national campaign coordinator in the run-up to the 2017 election, described the revelations about officials’ actions during the election as “a betrayal of millions of Labour voters”.

And Hilary Schan, co-chair of left-wing campaign group Momentum, said the Forde report was “a damning indictment of the Labour Right’s attempts to destroy from within the Corbyn leadership”.

“The report confirms it conclusively: right-wing Labour staff members worked to undermine the Party’s general election chances and its own complaints system, including on antisemitism, while engaging in racist and misogynistic behaviour towards MPs and members, all out of an overwhelming hatred for the Left,” she said.

“Disgracefully, while tens of thousands of Labour members were pounding the streets to kick the Tories out in favour of a socialist Labour government, these right-wing factional operators were wreaking havoc on the Party from within.

“Going forward we need more than just apologies. In addition to careful consideration of the report’s findings, we need guarantees from the Labour leadership that those involved in this sabotage never again join or work for the Party. We need the delayed implementation of Labour’s BAME structures to be accelerated, given the widespread racism exposed within Labour and the Leadership’s documented failures to address it.

“And we need Keir Starmer himself to commit to stop disregarding Labour’s rules to benefit his own factional agenda, as he has recently on Parliamentary selections. Keir Starmer has faced major questions over his commitment to both anti-racism and democracy– now is his opportunity to answer them.”

Luke Akehurst, a member of Labour’s NEC and chair of the moderate campaign group Labour First, said: “It’s been a long time coming, but at last all the trolls writing ‘where is the Forde report’ will have to compose a new tweet to cut and paste in reply to anything and everything.”

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “The Forde report details a party that was out of control.

“Keir Starmer is now in control and has made real progress in ridding the party of the destructive factionalism and unacceptable culture that did so much damage previously and contributed to our defeat in 2019.”

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