Labour anti-Semitism claims prompt dismay in party

Seumas Milne and Jennie FormbyImage copyright
PA Media

Image caption

Seumas Milne and Jennie Formby have been accused of interfering in the disciplinary process

Senior Labour figures have expressed anger and alarm over claims some of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies tried to interfere in disciplinary processes involving allegations of anti-Semitism.

Deputy leader Tom Watson said there was a “permissive culture” of anti-Semitism in the party and Mr Corbyn was “the only one” to fix it.

But Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said the leadership was “directly complicit”.

Labour has insisted the claims made in Wednesday’s Panorama were inaccurate.

They denied any interference and said the former staff who had spoken to the programme were “disaffected”.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the “serious charges” were being “hotly contested”, and the process of dealing with complaints in the party had been “improved dramatically”.

But Mr Watson said he “deplored the statement made” by the party and to dismiss the testimony of the staff – some of whom had signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) when they left – was “wrong”.

‘Harrowing’ testimony

Labour’s disputes team is supposed to operate independently from the party’s political structures, including the leader’s office.

BBC Panorama spoke to former party officials, who alleged they had to deal with a huge increase in anti-Semitism complaints since Mr Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015.

Eight former officials who worked in the team and dealt with anti-Semitism cases claimed to the BBC that:

  • The leader’s office was “angry and obstructive” when it came to the issue
  • Officials brought in by the party’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, “overruled” some of their disciplinary decisions and “downgraded” punishments to a “slap on the wrist”
  • Seumas Milne, one of Mr Corbyn’s closest aides, laughed when advised by a long-serving party official about what Mr Corbyn should do to tackle anti-Semitism in the party
  • On one occasion, Mr Corbyn’s office ordered batches of anti-Semitism complaints to be brought to his Commons office for processing by his aides

Labour has rejected claims of interference and described the programme as “seriously inaccurate” and “politically one-sided”.

Mr McDonnell – a close ally of Mr Corbyn – said current staff had put in complaints to the BBC about the accusations made in the Panorama programme.

“I have always said from the very beginning [the process of dealing with complaints] was too slow and not ruthless enough, but it has improved dramatically now,” he said.

Media captionJohn McDonnell says Labour’s complaints process has ‘improved dramatically’

“I think it is important that we listen to what has been said and look ourselves at what is happening, but what we’ve got now is two groups of staff challenging the accuracy of [the accusations] so we will have to look at that.”

But Mr Watson told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the party needed new measures to tackle anti-Semitism – including automatic expulsion of members.

“In the last four years since Jeremy and I were elected leader and deputy leader of the party, there is a growing belief that there is a sickness in our party, that this kind of abuse has been in some way allowed, that there is almost a permissive culture that people can use anti-Jewish racist language… that we have failed to address adequately,” he said.

Asked if he thought Mr Corbyn had what it takes to fix the party, Mr Watson said: “Not only do I think he can fix it, I think he is the only one who can fix it.”

He added: “I am not going to turn a blind eye to anti-Jewish racism. I am going to call it out, day in, day out, until action is taken.

“That might cause great difficulty for my colleagues in the shadow cabinet who are also collectively responsible for this, but until we have dealt with it, until we have actually changed our rules, until we have actually attacked the culture at its root cause, then I am not going to resile.”

Media captionJewish Labour Party members told the BBC’s Panorama about their experiences of anti-Semitism in the party

Chief Rabbi Mirvis tweeted a statement after Panorama aired, saying the programme “must be a watershed moment in this agonising saga”.

He added: “This is no longer a question of the leadership’s inability to deal with the scourge of anti-Semitism, but of its direct complicity in it.

“The cloud of hatred and acrimony that this creates must be lifted from our politics and from our society.

“Quite simply, we cannot go on like this.”

Guardian columnist Dawn Foster defended Labour’s response to the programme, saying it was “right to draw some distinction about who is making [the accusations] and whether or not they are politically motivated”.

She told Today: “A lot of what we saw [in the programme] was a discussion in the huge rise of complaints… and that staff felt overworked.

“That is not something anybody in Labour rebuts, but to say it is institutionally anti-Semitic? There would have to be more evidence of that throughout.

“Instead what we saw from the documentary was a handful of cases being used to draw a much wider idea about the entire party.”

In May, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched a formal investigation to look into whether Labour has “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish”.

Other MPs and peers in the party also offered their support to the former staff in the documentary, adding that it showed Labour was failing to effectively tackle anti-Semitism in its ranks.

Labour peer Lord Falconer said the leadership had to “change gear” over the issue.

Fellow Labour peer Lord Levy, a former party fundraiser under ex-PM Tony Blair and a leading voice in the British Jewish community, said the party should feel ashamed of what was going on.

He told Today that if the party’s leadership could not deal with such a sensitive issue then the leadership must look at themselves and see if they needed to be changed.

He said he considered leaving the party every day because it was so difficult to stay. However, he said, friends had told him that walking away would “allow them to take over our party”.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said the programme added weight to the group’s suspicion that the issue of anti-Semitism had been “treated with disdain”.

Media captionSenior rabbi “appalled” by Panorama allegations

Long-running dispute

Labour has been engulfed in a long-running dispute over anti-Semitism within its ranks, which has led nine MPs and three peers to leave the party.

The leadership has been accused of failing to get to grips with the problem, with allegations of hundreds of complaints against members remaining unresolved.

But Labour said it “completely” rejected any claims it was anti-Semitic.

It accused the Panorama programme of being a “seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic, which breached basic journalistic standards, invented quotes and edited emails to change their meaning”.

The party said that “no proper and serious attempt was made to understand our current procedures for dealing with anti-Semitism, which is clearly essential to reach a fair and balanced judgement”.

It added: “Since Jennie Formby became general secretary the rate at which anti-Semitism cases have been dealt with has increased more than fourfold.

“We will build on the improvements to our procedures made under Jennie Formby, and continue to act against this repugnant form of racism.”

Labour anti-Semitism claims prompt dismay in party}

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