POLITICS
10/07/2019 17:07 BST | Updated 10/07/2019 23:38 BST

Corbyn’s Key Allies ‘Interfered’ With Labour’s Anti-Semitism Disciplinary Process, Former Staff Claim

BBC Panorama programme hears from eight former HQ officials.

Jeremy Corbyn’s key allies interfered in Labour’s disciplinary process to try and “downgrade” serious cases of anti-Semitism, former staff have alleged.

In a BBC Panorama special, ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’, eight ex-officials broke gagging orders to speak out about the way the party dealt with claims of Jew-hating conduct by activists.

Leaked emails show that Corbyn’s strategy and communications chief Seumas Milne told Labour HQ staff that the system needed reform because “we’re muddling up political disputes with racism”.

Milne is also accused of laughing in the face of an official who suggested that Corbyn should speed up the process and make a speech recognising Israel’s right to exist.

New general secretary Jennie Formby also sent an email in which she said she would personally be “challenging the panel” set up to investigate an alleged anti-Semite Jackie Walker.

Walker was eventually expelled from the party, two years after HuffPost UK first revealed she had told a conference fringe meeting she had not yet come across a definition of anti-Semitism “I can work with”, and for criticising the Holocaust Memorial Day for only commemorating Jewish victims.

One former official tasked with investigations alleged that in a number of cases, people brought in by Formby “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.”

Another investigator, Kat Buckingham, describes on the programme how she had a nervous breakdown after trying to deal with the “massive” and “real” problem of anti-Semitism, adding she was “stuck between … an angry and obstructive leader’s office and an arcane disciplinary system”.

Seumas Milne and Jennie Formby.

Labour has been dogged by the anti-Semitism row since 2016, with claims that the party has seen an increase in cases under Corbyn’s reign as his supporters crossed the line from legitimate criticism of Israel to more insidious prejudice.

Corbyn himself sparked protests from his own MPs after it emerged that he had commented on Facebook about an image of mural that depicted classic anti-Semitic trope of Jewish bankers exploiting the world’s poor.

He later said he ‘sincerely’ regretted not looking “more closely at the image I was commenting on”.

The Labour leader has repeatedly insisted he wants to root out the problem and hired Formby with the task of changing the disciplinary process to clear cases faster and more efficiently.

In May this year, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) decided to formally investigate the allegations of institutional failures. It has the statutory power to demand documents and evidence and make recommendations for reform.

The disputes team within the Labour Party is designed to operate independently, but the Panorama programme, which airs on Wednesday night, sets out how the former party officials describe increased interest from the leader’s office after 2015.

In an email on March 10, 2018, Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, said there should be a review of the disciplinary process into anti-Semitic complaints.

“Something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism... I think going forward we need to review where and how we’re drawing the line.”

The then head of disputes, Sam Matthews, interpreted that email as “the leader’s office requesting to be involved directly in the disciplinary process. This is not a helpful suggestion, it is an instruction”.

After Formby became the general secretary of the Labour Party in March 2018, Dan Hogan, an investigator on the disputes team, claimed that she brought in staff who “overruled us”. 

The programme alleges that Formby suggested changes to the party’s quasi-judicial National Constitutional Committee (NCC), which investigates and has the power to expel members.

On 5 May 2018, an email from her states: “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.”

Former Labour general secretary Lord McNicol told the programme: “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.”

Former Labour staffer Mike Creighton

Mike Creighton, Labour’s former head of the Labour disputes team, told BBC Panorama he was approached by Milne for advice in spring 2016.

Creighton said: “[Milne] said, I want to talk to you about anti-Semitism, 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 anti-Semitic 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.”

Creighton said Milne laughed at his suggestions. “He actually laughed at me… I thought he actually wanted to know how we tackle anti-Semitism 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 hit back at the claim. A spokesperson said: “The Labour Party dispute this conversation ever took place… this allegation is false and malicious.

“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.”

A spokesman for Corbyn rounded on the BBC for focusing on Labour’s anti-Semitism issue. “What we haven’t seen is anything remotely comparable over the clear and much stronger evidence of rampant Islamophobia among Conservative Party members,” he said.

In a formal response, a party spokesman said: “The Panorama programme and the BBC have engaged in deliberate and malicious representations designed to mislead the public.”

“It appears 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. This throws into doubt their credibility as sources.

“Our records show that after these officials left and after Jennie Formby became General Secretary, the rate at which antisemitism cases have been dealt with, increased more than four-fold.”

Rebutting the specific charge against Milne, the party said he did not proactively interfere and was only responding requests from officials.

His email had stressed: “If we’re more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for anti-Semitism, something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism.”

Referring to the specific claims about Formby, the party said: “These emails show the opposite of what Panorama is alleging. There was absolutely no attempt to interfere in the NCC.

“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.”

During the programme, several Jewish members - including a former staffer - laid bare the abuse they had been subjected to online and in person in party meetings.

Matthews, the former head of disputes, said his mental health had suffered while in post. “I actively considered committing suicide...as a way to not feel trapped any more,” he said.

The party revealed on Wednesday that he had sent a complaint letter to BBC on 4th July, asking it “to suspend and reconsider the planned broadcast”.

Its lawyer Gerald Shamash also sent a letter to the BBC’s group general counsel dealing with “legal, statutory and wider editorial concerns and issues”, and alleging the programme was “unlikely to meet the BBC’s obligations of fairness, balance and political impartiality”.

Earlier, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the party should change its rules to automatically expel anyone guilty of anti-Semitism, saying it had to do “whatever is necessary” to win back critics who had deserted Labour over the issue.

His comments came after three senior peers quit the Labour whip in protest at the handling of the issue under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Jennifer Gerber, director of Labour Friends of Israel, said: “This scandal has been compounded in recent days by the efforts to muzzle whistleblowers, impugn the integrity of journalists and intimidate the BBC.

“Anti-Jewish racism shames the Labour leadership, shows its unfitness for office and besmirches the values for which the party once proudly stood.”