Forde inquiry report into claims of racism, sexism and bullying published

Elliot Chappell
© DrimaFilm/Shutterstock.com

An inquiry headed by Martin Forde QC to investigate allegations of bullying, racism and sexism made in a controversial leaked report has provided its findings to the national executive committee (NEC) of the party.

The inquiry was tasked with looking into an internal paper, leaked online in 2020, on Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints. The leaked report was written by party staff amid the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation.

In the document produced today, seen by LabourList, the authors write that the aim of the leaked report was to “counter what appeared to be a growing acceptance” that delays in progressing antisemitism cases under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership had been caused by “interference from Jeremy Corbyn himself, and his staff”.

“The leaked report’s authors were not seeking to play down or obscure the scale of antisemitism. The leaked report expressly rejects, on page one of the executive summary, the suggestion that the problem of antisemitism in the party was overstated and/or that allegations of antisemitism were all part of a smear campaign against the leadership,” they added.

On the “abnormal intensity” of factionalism between 2015 and 2019, the report stated: “Jeremy Corbyn’s election marked the first time that the leader was seen as so out of step with the predominant political view of most of the permanent staff.”

The Forde report found that a “toxic atmosphere within the party in this period was compounded by the antagonistic relationship between HQ and LOTO, exacerbated by the confusion and entanglement of their respective roles, some of which predated the Corbyn era”.

“The whole situation rapidly deteriorated as several on the right did seize on the issue as a way to attack [Jeremy] Corbyn and several on the left adopted a position of denialism and conspiracy theories,” the authors wrote.

It stated that there was “little evidence of mutual respect and a great deal of evidence of factionalism, so deep-rooted that the party has found itself dysfunctional” and said “both factions” treated antisemitism as a “factional weapon”.

It found that while the EHRC in its findings tended to “discount the legitimate political necessity of the leader and LOTO being made aware of developments” in antisemitism cases, there was sufficient evidence to conclude that “interference, at times, went beyond what was the legitimate interest of LOTO”.

But it added: “We have not received clear and convincing documentary evidence that there was a systematic attempt by the elected leadership or LOTO to interfere unbidden in the disciplinary process in order to undermine the party’s response to allegations of antisemitism.

“In our view, the problem was principally a lack of clarity (on both sides) about how involved LOTO should be; and this was aggravated by the mutual antagonism between HQ staff and LOTO.”

In the 138-page document, the authors reported that staff in the leader’s office provided “input into specific [antisemitism] cases” at the request of HQ and that LOTO responded “for the most part, reasonably and in good faith”.

It continued: “We note that their responses were subsequently used to form the basis of wholly misleading media reports which suggested that LOTO staff had aggressively imposed themselves on the process against HQ’s wishes.”

According to the report shown to NEC members today, messages sent by senior Corbynsceptic staff working in HQ – released in the leaked paper – expressed “deplorably factional and insensitive, and at times discriminatory, attitudes”.

The report stated: “Among senior HQ staff, communication via WhatsApp ‘echo chambers’ amplified the hostility and allowed the boundaries of acceptable conduct to become blurred; this resulted in conduct on the part of some senior staff which was wholly unacceptable.”

The report rejected the assertion that extracts of the messages quoted in the leaked report were “cherry-picked” or “selectively edited” such that they had become “unrepresentative and misleading”.

But it added: “We do also accept that the messages’ authors were not given a right of reply before their messages were included in the leaked report; that was a clear breach of natural justice.”

The Forde report noted that the leaked report was “itself a factional document with an agenda to advance, and that the quoted messages were selected pursuant to that agenda”.

Forde concluded that there are “serious problems of discrimination in the operations of the party” and highlighted the “undoubted overt and underlying racism and sexism apparent in some of the content of the WhatsApp messages between the party’s most senior staff”.

The report also noted that a “significant number” of submissions to its call to evidence, many of which came from ordinary party members, detailed individuals’ experiences of discrimination in Constituency Labour Parties and party processes.

The report added: “Often the complaints were in part about the failure of party officials at regional and national level to take such problems seriously.”

It stated that the party’s disciplinary process was “not fit for purpose” during the period under investigation and was “potentially prone to factional interference”.

The report continued: “We must commend the party for its efforts more recently to achieve a greater degree of independence in its system of regulation, with notable reforms approved at the party conference in 2021. Further improvements are still required, however.”

The report endorsed the conclusion of Labour Together, in its review of the party following the general election defeat in 2019, which said the party “spent substantial periods of the last five years in conflict with itself” and that the “responsibility for this rests not wholly with one side or part of our movement”.

Forde concluded that, under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour was “spending more time occupied by factional differences than working collaboratively to demonstrate that the party is an effective opposition”.

The report stated: “Members of the SMT [senior management team] WhatsApp groups were focused on what they saw as protecting the party from Jeremy Corbyn rather than helping him to advance his agenda.

“Though staff did not generally seek to exacerbate LOTO’s operational problems, which were seen as self-inflicted, they often passively observed or even welcomed them. Some comments do appear to show straightforward attempts to hinder LOTO’s work (in their view, for the party’s greater good).”

It added that both sides “genuinely believed that the other side was trying to sabotage their work in this period – sometimes with a degree of justification, and sometimes not”.

Forde concluded that it was “highly unlikely” that a secret defensive campaign run by Corbynsceptic staffers during the 2017 election lost Labour the election. But the report added that the operation, “whilst not illegal, departed from the approved strategy; it was as such wrong”.

The report stated that there was “some evidence” both sides “improperly based resourcing decisions on a combination of electoral need and factional alignment, when only electoral need should have been considered”.

It continued: “We find that both HQ staff and LOTO staff wanted the party to win as many of their favoured MPs in place as possible, which prevented fully objective decision-making; the two sides were trying to win in different ways.”

The report found that some senior HQ staff “had the ability to implement resourcing decisions covertly” and that a “handful of staff” working in Ergon House spent “some £135,000 in total on campaigns supportive of sitting largely anti-Corbyn MPs and not on campaigns for pro-Corbyn candidates in potentially Tory winnable seats”.

CLICK TO READ THE REPORT

The leaked document, which was dated March 2020, concluded that cases were poorly handled by the party but antisemitism complaints were not treated differently. It also said the process improved under general secretary Jennie Formby.

Since the unredacted report was distributed online in April 2020, the party has been subject to legal action by people named in it – including ex-party staffers, who were initially suspended from Labour due to messages contained in the report.

The Forde inquiry was originally set to conclude in July 2020, but the timescale was described by Forde as “impractical”. It then aimed to deliver the report “by the end of 2020”, which was later changed to “early in 2021”.

The Forde Inquiry said in February 2021 that it had “recently been made aware” that the Information Commissioner’s Office was investigating the same leaks and its own findings could have the potential to prejudice the ICO’s work.

In January 2022, Forde sent a letter to Labour NEC members saying the Forde Report could not be shared at their meeting as promised but it was “largely completed”. He then wrote to NEC members, apologising for the delay and saying the report had been “finalised“, in March this year.

CLICK TO READ THE REPORT

Reacting to the publication of the report this afternoon, Momentum co-chair Hilary Schan described it as a “damning indictment of the Labour right’s attempts to destroy from within the Corbyn leadership, and with it the hopes of a radical Labour government for the many”.

She said: “Disgracefully, while tens of thousands of Labour members were pounding the streets to kick the Tories out in favour of a socialist Labour government, these right-wing factional operators were wreaking havoc on the party from within.”

Schan said “we need more than just apologies” and called for “guarantees” from the party leadership that those “involved in this sabotage never again join or work for the party”. She added: “Starmer has faced major questions over his commitment to both anti-racism and democracy – now is his opportunity to answer them.”

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