Jennie Formby and Tom Watson exchange letters in antisemitism row

Sienna Rodgers

Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby and deputy leader Tom Watson have exchanged strongly-worded letters about antisemitism within the party following the BBC Panorama programme on that subject, which aired on Wednesday night.

On Thursday afternoon, Watson wrote to the general secretary and said the contributors to the episode – particularly former party staffers – were “brave” and yet “smeared” by Labour spokespeople.

The shadow cabinet member then accused Formby of not sharing Labour’s submission on antisemitism complaints to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and called on her to release it. He concluded: “Only sunlight can disinfect Labour of anti-semitism now.”

Labour’s general secretary replied with a lengthy letter, which started with an expression of disappointment at the way the issues were raised. Formby pointed out that she is undergoing chemotherapy.

Responding to Watson’s claim that she had not shared the EHRC submission with Labour’s ruling body, she said: “You know that this is not the case. I wrote to you twice and offered to meet with you to provide you with the party’s response to the EHRC.

“I also updated the shadow cabinet on the EHRC and wider antisemitism issues on Tuesday. Given your considerable public concern around this issue, I am confused as to why you did not raise a single issue or question while at that meeting.”

She also denied deleting emails relating to specific disciplinary cases of antisemitism, a claim that featured in the BBC Panorama investigation, saying “nothing is destroyed or hidden”.

Below is the full text of Jennie Formby’s reply to Tom Watson.

Dear Tom,

Thank you for writing to me. It is important that members are given some balance to your letter, so I am publishing my reply.

I am very disappointed at the way you choose to address this extremely sensitive and difficult issue. The Party has at all levels consistently shown that it recognises the vital importance of combating antisemitism, yet you consistently abuse your considerable platform to denigrate any progress that has been made, and any individual that is involved in that. Furthermore, traducing my reputation and publicly attacking me when you know I am undergoing chemotherapy and am unable to respond in the media, is another example of the inappropriate way in which you choose to discuss this issue.

Antisemitism and the consequences of that form of racism is extremely serious, as history has shown us. The Labour Party has taken significant steps to strive for the most robust complaints system of any political party when dealing with accusations of oppressive behaviours. These steps have been detailed publicly, and we have been open and honest about the need to continuously improve systems to deal with any abhorrent views members may hold – which, as you will know, are held by a small minority of the overall membership.

I know it is a real problem in the Labour Party. Like you I have seen it first hand. But we must deal with the facts. Antisemitism-related cases that have been taken through the stages of our disciplinary procedures since September 2015 relate to roughly 0.06% of the Party’s average membership during this time. Since I started as General Secretary, the speed of processing of antisemitism cases has increased by more than four-fold.

By choosing to ignore the steps taken by this party, and commenting so uncritically about the Panorama programme, you are complicit in creating a perception that antisemitism is more prevalent in the Labour Party than wider society. This is deeply irresponsible for the deputy leader of a party which seeks to be in Government, and risks exacerbating the fear that Jewish communities will feel. I did watch the Panorama programme, and I was very concerned to hear for the first time the distress suffered by some of our former staff members. To be clear we were not made aware of these issues at the time.

All employees of the Labour Party have access to an Employee Assistance Programme, which is widely advertised throughout the organisation. Their role is to provide a confidential support service to employees on a range of personal and work issues and their details are shared with employees to ensure they have support in place. They can provide a range of support including counselling. As an organisation we have a duty of care to employees. We have highlighted the importance of leaders and managers in talking to their teams to offer support through team meetings and 121s. If managers have specific concerns one of the HR team can help signpost more specific help or work with managers on what could be done as a team. If managers have specific concerns about an individual they can speak to a member of the HR team.

We will also be working on a campaign to help break the stigma of mental health in the workplace and will be working jointly with the trade unions to deliver this.

As well as staff accounts, hearing the testimonies from Jewish members of our party was distressing. We must continue working to ensure that our party is always a safe and welcoming space for Jewish people.

You also say in your letter that I have ‘withheld’ the EHRC response from you. You know that this is not the case. I wrote to you twice and offered to meet with you to provide you with the Party’s response to the EHRC.

I also updated the Shadow Cabinet on the EHRC and wider antisemitism issues on Tuesday. Given your considerable public concern around this issue, I am confused as to why you did not raise a single issue or question while at that meeting.

You also suggest in your letter that I deleted emails relating to cases of antisemitism. This is not the case. Labour email addresses are copied into the particular email chain so the emails are fully searchable through our internal subject request searches. Therefore nothing is destroyed or hidden.

These emails do not discuss any member’s data, so it would not amount to any kind of data breach.

It is the case that my Labour address was compromised for a short time after I began as General Secretary. Given that my inbox was accessed and its contents were leaked, I was clearly right to have concerns.

I agree with your point that this is a collective responsibility, and it is one I share with the NEC, the governing body of the Party. As I have repeatedly stated, the authority to share the document or not lies with the NEC. It has ruled that copies of the EHRC submission, a confidential document, are not shared more widely than already agreed.

Finally, I must also ask you once again to consider the impact that your actions are having on our staff in the Governance and Legal team. They have been working incredibly hard to clear all complaints, not just those of antisemitism, including the considerable backlog that had built up from 2016. For them to be brought into the public eye with no opportunity to respond or defend themselves must be extremely difficult.

Since taking on the role as General Secretary I have been unremittingly clear that the welfare of our staff is extremely important, and I would ask you to respect both the contribution that they make, and to recognise that they are unable to rebut or respond to any criticism you make in the public domain.

Yours sincerely,

Jennie Formby
General Secretary

Below is the full text of Tom Watson’s letter to Jennie Formby.

Dear Jennie,

I write having watched last night’s appalling Panorama documentary about antisemitism in Labour. I hope you watched it too.

I found the testimony of Jewish Labour members and former members of staff truly shocking and distressing. Despite having had to deal with the antisemitism crisis within our party almost every week for over three years, I still found the personal testimony of victims of antisemitism and the staff trying to deal with it harrowing.

These young people, particularly the ex-staff who broke NDAs to speak out, have been very brave to go before a camera and tell their stories. The way that they have been smeared, including by Labour spokespeople, is deplorable. Even if some in the party did not want to hear what they had to say, it is unacceptable to attempt to undermine their integrity and characters in this manner.

I am also seriously concerned that as a party we have breached our duty of care towards these former staff members. As General Secretary you will have been aware that some of these whistle-blowers had to leave their jobs due to mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, which arose as a direct result of their experiences at work. I would have thought that as a former Union official you would be particularly sensitive to this. Yet the party’s official response to this Panorama has totally failed these former staff and breached all common standards of decency. I am deeply disappointed by it.

The Panorama also raised allegations that you have deleted emails relating to cases of antisemitism and asked for cases to be sent to your Unite email address. I am concerned about this given you have previously reassured me, in the attached correspondence, that all data relating to antisemitism would be preserved. Can you please explain this and confirm that the EHRC has been given access to the Unite email referred to by you in the emails seen by Panorama?

I also feel, given the gravity of the allegations raised in the Panorama, that I must insist once again that you publish Labour’s submission to the EHRC.

You have told me previously that, despite my being elected Deputy Leader and a member of the National Executive Committee, it is not my responsibility to be involved in the party’s dealings with external statutory bodies. You have also insisted the Shadow Cabinet do not have a right to see the submission and nor do the NEC. I disagree.

Under the constitutional rules it is the NEC and the NEC alone who are “the administrative authority of the party.” Moreover, the NEC’s terms of reference identify “key functions” for which the NEC has “responsibility”. These include “management and governance of the party” and complying with legislation and the law.

The NEC can and does delegate. It does not however follow that a document vital to the party can be withheld from the NEC as delegator or from everyone on the NEC. I believe there is no express legal basis for withholding the document from the chair of the NEC or from me as deputy leader.

I consider it inherent in my leadership role that I have personal responsibility for the party’s compliance with equality law and the party’s response to regulators such as the EHRC.

The submission here is no minor matter that can simply be left to others. As I have said before, I have not delegated my responsibilities in this to you. Nor could I do so.

The deputy leader‘s responsibility is not simply confined to being a consultee of the leader, providing the leader with advice and support, and substituting for him. The role includes all that, but it is broader, and is perceived as broader.

Panorama painted a picture of a party in which antisemitism is tolerated and allowed to grow. It depicted a party with structures completely unfit to deal with the scale of the problem.

As the political and corporate leadership of this party the Shadow Cabinet and NEC must now see the EHRC submission.

By refusing to share the submission with anyone else you have taken individual responsibility for it but this is a matter for collective not individual responsibility.

The Shadow Cabinet and NEC need to know what you have sent to the EHRC in our party’s name, and we need to know urgently. Every member of these two bodies is bound by a moral and political responsibility to eradicate antisemitism from the party and restore our standing with the Jewish community.

I therefore insist you release the submission you sent to the EHRC on behalf of the labour party. I can see no basis or authority for refusal.

Given the concerns about secrecy and suppression of information raised in the Panorama I am disclosing this letter and the attached correspondence to the public.

Only sunlight can disinfect Labour of antisemitism now.


Tom Watson
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

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