‘Is Labour antisemitic?’: BBC Panorama on political interference and leaked emails

Sienna Rodgers

The BBC Panorama episode on Labour antisemitism, airing tonight at 9pm, features eight former Labour staffers and a number of allegations. The key points are summarised below.

Allegations of leader’s office interference

1) Jeremy Corbyn’s communications director Seumas Milne wrote in a March 2018 email: “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.” Sam Matthews, head of disputes at the time, said he interpreted the email as “the leader’s office requesting to be involved directly in the disciplinary process” and “not a helpful suggestion; it is an instruction”.

A Labour spokesperson said: “This is a malicious, selective briefing from disaffected, politically hostile former employees, which was already briefed to the press several months ago. Through selective quotation to change the meaning, Panorama has deliberately misrepresented this correspondence. The full sentence reads, “But 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.”

“The leader’s office did not intervene. The email from a former employee explicitly asks for a “view”, which was complied with in good faith during a short period between the former general secretary leaving and the new general secretary taking over.

“The email written by Seumas Milne expresses a view, as requested by former staff, that caution be exercised when taking action against Jewish people over antisemitism. That was the main point of the email, and for the Panorama press release to omit that key issue, is seriously to misrepresent what was said and took place.

“Having identified the subject of the complaint as a “Jewish activist, the son of Holocaust survivor”, the email states: “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”. In a separate email, one of these disaffected former employees says “there isn’t a strong case” against the Jewish individual.

“The ultimate decision on individual cases always rested with the staff who worked on disciplinary matters. Since becoming general secretary, Jennie Formby has ended this practice and made the procedures for dealing with complaints about antisemitism more robust.”

2) Mike Creighton, another former Labour staffer, said he was approached by Milne for advice in 2016 and recommended that “top level” cases should be dealt with “more swiftly and much more robustly” and Jeremy Corbyn should make a speech saying Israel had a right to exist. Creighton has claimed Milne laughed at the suggestions.

A Labour spokesperson commented: “This allegation is false and malicious and our response has been misrepresented by Panorama, throwing into doubt the extent and seriousness of their engagement with the Labour party’s responses. Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly expressed his support for Israel’s right to exist and for a two state solution, with a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable Palestinian state, so there would be no reason whatever to laugh at any such suggestion. This claim is absurd and untrue.”

3) Corbyn’s office said batches of antisemitism complaints should be brought from HQ to the parliamentary office to be processed by aides, according to a claim made in the programme.

Labour has commented: “This is a staff resourcing matter. Staff have been seconded into GLU [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.”

Allegations of interference in Labour’s national constitutional committee

Leaked emails show that Jennie Formby tried to influence the selection of the panel for the high-profile and controversial Jackie Walker case, according to BBC Panorama. “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,” Formby wrote in a May 2018 email. Corbyn, Milne and chief of staff Karie Murphy were copied in.

To the same recipients, Formby later wrote: “I’ve permanently deleted all trace of the email. Too many eyes all on my Labour address. Please use my Unite address.” Labour has told the BBC that Formby temporarily stopped using her party email due to concerns that a political opponent had access to it.

A Labour spokesperson commented: “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.

“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.

“Any allegation that there was any attempt to interfere with this case or support this individual is entirely untrue, as proven by the fact that the individual was expelled this year, while Jennie Formby was general secretary, after these disaffected staffers had left.”

Former Labour officials

The former party officials reject suggestions that they are politically motivated. Kat Buckingham described Labour antisemitism as “massive” and “real” to Panorama, and said it “wasn’t constructed by embittered old Blairites”. She said she had a breakdown and left the party.

Louise Withers Green, a former disputes officer, experienced depression and anxiety and also quit the party, the BBC says. She signed a non-disclosure agreement, which she told Panorama was “really tight” but she has defied it because she wouldn’t “be able to live with myself unless I speak up about the horrendous things that I know have been happening”.

A Labour spokesperson said: “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.”

Labour’s response

The party’s full response to the Panorama programme reads: “The Panorama programme and the BBC have engaged in deliberate and malicious representations designed to mislead the public. We completely reject any claim that the Labour Party is antisemitic. The Labour Party at all levels is implacably opposed to antisemitism and is determined to root out this social cancer from our movement and society.

“Labour stands in solidarity with Jewish people and is fully committed to the support, defence and celebration of the Jewish community and its organisations. Labour is taking decisive action against antisemitism, doubling the number of staff dedicated to dealing with complaints and cases. And since Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which antisemitism cases have been dealt with has increased more than four-fold.

“Our records show that antisemitism cases that have gone through the stages of our disciplinary procedures since September 2015 account for about 0.06% of the party’s membership. This represents a tiny minority, but one antisemite is one too many, and we will continue to act against this repugnant form of racism.

“In both its choice of presenter and lines of inquiry, it appears that Panorama has pre-determined the outcome of its investigation and is relying on unsubstantiated allegations and misrepresentation to come to its conclusions.

“No proper attempt has been made by Panorama to understand Labour’s current processes and procedures for dealing with complaints about antisemitism, which is clearly essential to reach a fair and balanced judgement about an important issue in the public interest.”

Former staffers interviewed

Kat Buckingham, Head of Disputes and Discipline 2015 – 2017
Mike Creighton, Director of Audit and Risk 2009-2017
Sam Matthews, Head of Disputes 2016-2018
Ben Westerman, Investigations Officer 2016-2017
Martha Robinson, Complaints Administrator 2018-2019
Dan Hogan, Investigations Officer 2016-2018
Louise Withers Green, Disputes Officer 2017-2018
Baron Iain McNicol, General Secretary of the Labour Party 2011-2018

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