Jeremy Corbyn's team repeatedly intervened in antisemitism cases, claim Labour whistleblowers in new documentary

Labour leader's most senior advisers and party general secretary accused of interfering to push for lighter punishments 

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 10 July 2019 18:02 BST
Labour leader's office requested to be 'involved directly' with antisemitism complaints, says party's former head of disputes

Jeremy Corbyn’s team repeatedly interfered in disciplinary cases relating to antisemitism, according to revelations made by Labour whistleblowers in a new documentary.

The Labour leader was personally copied into emails in which Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary, appeared to promise to interfere in a case involving an activist who had claimed Jews were responsible for the slave trade, according to an edition of BBC Panorama titled “Is Labour antisemitic?”.

In another case, Seumas Milne, Mr Corbyn’s director of communications, told party staff they were “muddling up political disputes with racism” and said Labour needed to “review where and how we’re drawing the line”.

Labour denied that Mr Corbyn’s team had intervened in disciplinary cases, saying the claims had been made by “disaffected former officials ... Who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership”. It accused the BBC of having “engaged in deliberate and malicious representations designed to mislead the public”.

Panorama claimed that only 15 people have been expelled by Labour over antisemitism.

The documentary contains evidence from eight whistleblowers, including four who are breaking non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to speak out. Many of the former staffers had direct responsibility for dealing with cases of alleged antisemitism.

One former investigator, Dan Hogan, said that in a number of cases staff members appointed by Ms Formby had “overruled us and downgraded what should’ve been a suspension to just an investigation or worse to just a reminder of conduct, effectively a slap on the wrist”.

Labour disciplinary investigations are supposed to be independent of the party leadership, but former party officials told Panorama that there had been increasing levels of intervention since Mr Corbyn became leader in 2015.

In one instance, staff at the party’s Victoria headquarters were allegedly told to bring antisemitism cases across to Mr Corbyn’s office in parliament to be processed by his advisers.

A Labour spokesperson denied that Mr Corbyn’s team had intervened, saying: “This is a staff resourcing matter. Staff have been seconded into GLU [the Governance and Legal Unit] at various times and from a variety of different departments in the organisation.

“These staff were always under the management of GLU staff while carrying out this administrative work. This in no way contradicts the separation of functions within the organisation and it does not contradict the party’s position that the complaints process operate independently of the leader’s office.”

But Sam Matthews, then Labour’s head of disputes, said Mr Milne’s suggestion of a “review” into how cases were being handled was “the leader’s office requesting to be involved directly in the disciplinary process”.

He said: “This is not a helpful suggestion, it is an instruction.”

Labour said Mr Milne had been arguing that some Jewish Labour members were being punished in relation to antisemitism and that this raised issues over the disciplinary process.

Another ex-official, former head of labour relations Mike Creighton, said Mr Milne had approached him in early 2016 to discuss antisemitism.

He said: “[Mr Milne] said, ‘I want to talk to you about antisemitism, how we deal with it.’ And I gave him my advice, which as I recall was two things; one was, we should deal with some of the top level antisemitic cases much more swiftly and much more robustly.

“Second thing I suggested was that it would be the right time for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, to make a significant speech on the issue of the Middle East, particularly saying that Israel had a right to exist.”

He added: “He actually laughed at me... I thought he actually wanted to know how we tackle antisemitism within the Labour Party. I think what he actually meant to say was, how do we deal with the bad publicity we’re getting?”

Labour denied that the conversation had taken place and called the allegations “false and malicious”. A spokesperson said: “Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly expressed his support for Israel’s right to exist and for a two state solution ... So there is no reason whatsoever to laugh at any such suggestion.”

The documentary also contains explosive allegations about Ms Formby’s involvement in cases of alleged antisemitism.

In May 2018, Labour’s general secretary reportedly emailed Mr Corbyn, Mr Milne and Karie Murphy, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, promising to intervene in the way the party’s independent and quasi-judicial disciplinary body, the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) was handling the case of Jackie Walker, who was suspended by the party after claiming that Jews had financed the slave trade.

Ms Formby is said to have written: “The NCC cannot be allowed to continue in the way that they are at the moment, and I will also be challenging the panel for the Jackie Walker case.”

In a later email referring to the initial message, she reportedly said: “I’ve permanently deleted all trace of the email. Too many eyes all on my Labour address. Please use my Unite address.” Labour said she had switched email addresses over fears that a political opponent had access to her official account.

Gordon Brown features in campaign video against antisemitism

Gordon Brown features in campaign video against antisemitism

Commenting on the emails, Iain McNicol, who was Labour’s general secretary until February 2018, told Panorama: “The emails that you’ve shown me are really important ... The issues that are raised within them should ring alarm bells across the party.

“The NCC was created in a specific way to remove itself from politics and from the political interference. So to try to interfere politically within the NCC is just wrong.”

A Labour spokesperson said: “The emails make clear that the NCC is independent. They are about ensuring the NCC is held accountable for the length of time they take to hear cases and about protecting the party against any successful legal challenge on the basis of perceived bias.

“As the email says, former, now disaffected, staff members, deliberately delayed Jackie Walker’s case, and Jennie Formby insisted that it be heard quickly. It was after these staffers had stopped working for the party, that Jackie Walker was expelled.”

On allegations of interference, they said: “The leader’s office did not intervene. These former disaffected employees sought the view of staff in the leader’s office, which was compiled with in good faith.

“These disaffected former officials include those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind. It is simply untrue to say that there were any significant number of disagreements about what constituted antisemitism.”

The party said it had written to Lord Hall, the BBC’s director general, to complain about the programme ahead of the broadcast.

A spokesperson claimed Panorama “had already come to a conclusion about where its investigation was going before it looked at the evidence in full”.

But the BBC accused Labour of “criticising a programme they have not seen”.

A spokesperson said: “The programme adheres to the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

“In line with those, the Labour Party has been given the opportunity to respond to the allegations.”

According to HuffPost, allies of Mr Corbyn circulated a briefing note ahead of the documentary in which they urged supporters to “drown out” the claims made in the programme.

The memo told his supporters: “Your role is simple. Make sure the truth about Jeremy and Jennie drowns out everything. Under your posts you will be trolled for daring to speak the truth.”

It told them to “saturate social media with fact-based videos, links and graphics of the times Jeremy has opposed antisemitism”.

It added: “Do not criticise the Labour right or [Labour deputy leader Tom] Watson over this next few days in relation to antisemitism as this will play into their hands.”

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