Frontrunner for Labour's next general secretary 'gave work to someone suspended by party for antisemitism'

Exclusive: Unite sources tell The Independent Jeremy Corbyn ally Jennie Formby would have 'directly recruited' Vicki Kirby, who previously claimed Jews have 'big noses' and 'slaughter the oppressed'

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Thursday 15 March 2018 19:04 GMT
Jennie Formby is the regional secretary in Unite’s Slough office, where Vicki Kirby worked
Jennie Formby is the regional secretary in Unite’s Slough office, where Vicki Kirby worked (Alamy)

The frontrunner to become Labour’s next general secretary was involved in giving work to someone who had previously been suspended by the party for antisemitism, The Independent understands.

Jennie Formby, a senior figure in Britain’s biggest trade union, was a line manager of Vicki Kirby, who was taken on by the Unite union last year.

Ms Kirby was suspended by Labour in 2014 over a series of Twitter posts in which she claimed Jews have “big noses”, are responsible for “slaughtering people”, and called Adolf Hitler a “Zionist God”.

The revelation is likely to raise fresh questions for Ms Formby days ahead of the 20 March meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), where the party’s next general secretary will be appointed – with one Labour MP telling The Independent she should be quizzed over the decision during her interview for the job.

Unite sources said Ms Formby would have had to approve Ms Kirby’s appointment, and would almost certainly have directly recruited her for the job, though Unite said the role was allocated after a joint decision by a number of officials.

Ms Formby is the regional secretary in Unite’s South-east office in Slough. Ms Kirby is understood to have worked as a regional officer in the same office. Unite documents shown to The Independent state that regional officers report directly to the regional secretary.

The Independent contacted Ms Formby for a comment but had not received a reply at the time of writing.

In a series of posts between 2011 and 2014, Ms Kirby made a number of offensive comments about Jews.

In one, she wrote: “We invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher.”

Another said: “What do you know about Jews? They’ve got big noses and support Spurs lol”.

And she joked: “That awkward moment when you realise you’ve taken this whole ‘I’m a Jew’ charade too far.”

One tweet said: “Point about Jews is that they OCCUPY Palestine. Used to live together, now slaughter the oppressed.”

Another message said: “Who is the Zionist God? I am starting to think it may be Hitler. #FreePalestine.”

She also expressed hope that the jihadi Isis group would attack Israel.

Ms Kirby is understood to have worked as a “stand-down” regional officer for Unite – a temporary appointment used to fill a gap when an employee retires or is off work with an illness.

A Unite source said: “Those appointments [of “stand-down” officers] are absolutely at the discretion of the regional secretary.

“Formby would have got permission to appoint a ‘stand-down’ and that’s how it will have happened. It’s entirely at the regional secretary’s discretion who they appoint.”

The source added: “She will have definitely had to sign off Vicki Kirby working for her at the South-east region. She’s the regional secretary so she’s in charge of all hiring of any staff anyway, and a stand-down regional officer isn’t appointed by the executive council, it is the regional secretary. She would have directly recruited her.

“The idea she knew nothing about it is nonsense. Not just that, but it was very clearly her commission. Nobody gets appointed as a stand-down officer without the regional secretary approving it. That is 100 per cent clear.”

A screenshot of Unite’s internal email server, given to The Independent, shows Vicki Kirby as being employed as a regional officer in the union’s Slough office, which is led by Jennie Formby

Ms Kirby was also photographed attending a Unite training course in October 2016 on how to teach children in schools about the benefits of trade unions.

A Unite spokesman said Ms Kirby had repeatedly apologised for her remarks and had been appointed by the union “following a procedure involving lay members and other officials”.

He said: “Vicky Kirby made appalling antisemitic remarks on Twitter for which she was rightly sanctioned by the Labour Party. She has repeatedly apologised publicly and privately for those remarks, which Unite condemn unreservedly. She has been fully reinstated into the Labour Party.

“Ms Kirby has never been an employee of Unite, although she did two months temporary organising work for the union after she had been reinstated into the Labour Party. Ms Kirby has consistently expressed her heartfelt regret about her comments and had attended training courses to assist with her wider understanding of the offence her remarks had caused.

“Such appointments are not the prerogative of the regional secretary in any case but are made following a procedure involving lay members and other officials. Any attempt to suggest otherwise is a smear against Jennie Formby, whose opposition to antisemitism is a matter of record. Ms Kirby has not been employed by Unite since.”

Despite the tweets, Ms Kirby was quietly readmitted to the Labour Party sometime between 2014 and 2016 after being issued with a warning and forced to resign as a parliamentary candidate.

She was suspended again in March 2016 after an outcry from MPs at the fact she had been readmitted and was acting as vice-chair of Woking Labour Party. She is also reported to have been active in the Momentum group.

She is believed to have since been readmitted by Labour for the second time. A party spokesperson said they could not comment on the membership status of individuals.

Labour’s general secretary is the party’s most senior member of staff and plays a key role in overseeing the enforcement of rules and the response to allegations of wrongdoing, including antisemitism, by members.

Ms Formby is widely seen as the frontrunner to take over the role, and is believed to have the backing of Jeremy Corbyn and his top team. Currently vice-chair of Labour’s NEC, she is a long-term supporter of Mr Corbyn and is close to Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey.

John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, tweeted his support for her candidacy last week, saying: “I’m delighted [Ms Formby] is standing for Labour general secretary. She’s a fantastic organiser and fighter for justice who we’ve campaigned with for years. She’s the person with the skills to deliver Jeremy’s vision of a members-led mass party to get him into Downing St.”

Corbyn: We will not tolerate anti-Semitism or other racism

Ms Formby was previously Unite’s political director but moved to become South-east regional secretary in 2016.

She is one of five people on a long list agreed by senior party officials on Wednesday. This is expected to be reduced to three candidates who will be interviewed by the NEC.

Her main rival, Momentum founder and chairman Jon Lansman, dropped out of the race last weekend. Reports suggest Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell had urged him not to stand against Ms Formby.

Labour MP John Mann, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, said the decision to employ Ms Kirby was “hugely inappropriate”.

He told The Independent: “An appointment like that breaks all the true traditions of the trade unions.

“We need to see more due diligence. Such a person would be hugely inappropriate either in a trade union or employed by the Labour Party.”

Suggesting Ms Formby should be quizzed on the matter by Labour’s NEC, he said: “If she ends up as general secretary she will need to demonstrate she fully understands equal opportunities employment, because someone who discriminates against Jewish people should not be working for such an organisation.

“These are questions people will want to ask at her interview and they will need to be convinced.”

He added: “We need to be certain in the Labour Party that nobody who holds antisemitic views gets any position of any kind either in party of in affiliated trade unions.

“The general secretary has got the leading role in ensuring that happens.”

The latest claims come days after the Labour Against Antisemitism (LAAS) group suggested Ms Formby had questions to answer over reports she had opposed an investigation into antisemitism in Labour being carried out by Baroness Royall on the grounds that the Labour peer was a supporter of Israel.

If the reports were true, LAAS claimed, Ms Formby would have “acted with antisemitic intent”.

That prompted a strongly-worded response from Unite, which said in a statement: “Jennie Formby voted for [Lady Royall’s] appointment, and argued for her inquiry to be properly resourced by the party.

“Ms Formby is a lifelong opponent of antisemitism and all forms of racism. LAAS’s smears have no place in Labour’s democracy of political culture.”

It added that the accusation against Ms Formby was a “malicious smear” and “a lie motivated by hostility to anyone who supports the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice”.

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