openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Were Labour’s antisemitism failures really Corbyn’s fault?

A leaked Labour report seems to provide evidence that it was in fact Corbyn’s opponents who delayed the disciplining of antisemites. Why has the media barely mentioned this?

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne Justin Schlosberg Richard Sanders
26 June 2020
Jeremy Corbyn at Labour conference 2017
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Credit: Labour Party

Throughout his leadership, Jeremy Corbyn was dogged by accusations that he was reluctant to tackle antisemitism in the Labour Party. Whatever he did or said on the issue was judged inadequate by critics, especially those within the party, and portrayed as such in the media. This perception of him did not just repel many Jewish MPs and party supporters. It contributed to a belief among voters that he and his party could not be trusted to uphold the basic standards of British political life.

The accusations were reinforced in 2019 when The Sunday Times reported that Labour’s attempts to deal with antisemitism were “bedevilled by delays, inaction and interference from the leader’s office”. [Our emphasis.] This latter suggestion was made even more forcibly in July 2019 by a BBC Panorama television documentary, ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’, citing testimony from former party officials. Followed and repeated by other media, the Panorama documentary formed an important part of a swelling anti-Corbyn narrative as December’s general election came closer. The narrative affected the result: polls consistently suggested that Corbyn was the biggest single liability of his party. 

Yet credible evidence has now emerged that challenges the deadly accusation that Corbyn undermined efforts to tackle antisemitism. It suggests, on the contrary, that the party’s inability to get to grips with the issue may have been in large measure due to the actions – or rather the inaction – of the very people who gave interviews attacking Corbyn in the July 2019 Panorama, which has this month controversially been shortlisted for a BAFTA award

The evidence comes from the Labour Party’s 851-page report titled ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019’, completed in March this year and leaked in early April. 

The report appears to be the product of exhaustive, painstaking research by, we understand, three members of the party staff. The compilers claim to have examined close to 100,000 internal Labour Party emails. They also cite three WhatsApp groups used by senior staff at Labour HQ, containing in total close to half a million words. 

It is a document produced under Corbyn’s leadership during a time of deep factional feuding and must therefore be treated with scepticism.

Yet the evidence it provides – including what appears to be a large cache of internal party communications and statistics – cannot be dismissed entirely.

So far, it has been mainly ignored by the same traditional media which repeatedly lacerated Corbyn over Labour antisemitism. But, if accurate, it puts the history of his tenure of the Labour Party in a new light.

Ferociously hostile

The report makes three claims. 

The first is that, prior to 2018, many staff at the party’s HQ in central London were ferociously hostile to the Corbyn project. 

Some of the language quoted on the WhatsApp groups is startling in its toxicity and infantilism. “Fuck off pube head,” wrote a senior staff member, referring to one senior staffer in Corbyn’s office. She also called her “fat”. 

Another Corbyn staffer is called a “bitch face cow” who “would make a good dart board” by other members of the WhatsApp group. 

Diane Abbott, Corbyn’s Shadow Home Secretary, was the target of a number of attacks. She “literally makes me sick”, wrote one senior official. 

On another occasion the same official expressed the hope that a young Corbyn supporter, who was acknowledged in the chat to have mental health issues, “dies in a fire”. 

A colleague responded, “if he does I wouldn’t piss on him to put him out”, while another wishes that there was “a petrol emoji”. 

These were not conversations among junior staffers in the pub after work, but WhatsApp groups said to be intended for work purposes that included the most senior officials in the party, up to the general secretary, Iain McNicol, now a member of the House of Lords. 

In April 2017 McNicol himself referred to the leader’s office as “fucking twats”. 

The report says that some of the language used in these exchanges could be seen as “more serious” than some of the language for which party members were suspended.

Contacted for this article, the Labour Party said: “These were messages exchanged between co-workers in the expectation that they would remain private and confidential and the tone of the language used reflects that.” The party added that it was “po-faced” to characterise the messages as “infantile”. 

As Labour surged in the polls during the 2017 general election campaign these officials are quoted as showing dismay. When the exit poll predicted a hung Parliament one senior official wrote: “They are cheering and we are silent and grey faced. Opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years!!”

‘Factions’

The second major claim is that these officials used their paid party positions to pursue a factional agenda hostile to the leadership.

The report provides a number of examples. Here’s one. 

When Corbyn faced a leadership challenge in the summer of 2016, the Governance and Legal Unit at party HQ took the controversial step of opening a ‘validation’ process for party members before they were allowed to vote in the leadership election. The report alleges this was targeted at the army of new recruits, most of whom were joining to support Corbyn’s re-election. 

A web app was designed that enabled officials to ‘scrape’ the Facebook and Twitter accounts of new members for offensive material. 

Rather than looking for abuse targeted at all Labour MPs, the report says that the team chose to flag up only attacks aimed at MPs on a 68-strong list, whom they selected. None of them was Black, only one was Asian, and none was a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. This meant that abuse targeted at, for example, Diane Abbott – who has long been known to receive large quantities of online abuse, much of it racist – would be missed by their system. 

Instead those ‘caught’ by this system were overwhelmingly supporters of Corbyn, the report says.

Those ‘caught’ by this system were overwhelmingly supporters of Corbyn, the report says

The scheme was run on a day-to-day basis by the GLU’s new compliance officer, a young staffer called Sam Matthews.  

He and the app’s designer joked about the factional nature of the validation process, the report says. “(Fuck momentum) I didn’t say that,” the designer wrote on 30 June. “Haha of course mate,” replied Matthews.

According to the report the scale of the operation was kept hidden from the National Executive Committee, the party’s governing body: “We’re worried they’ll get scared,” wrote Matthews. 

When the NEC asked to see the list of flagged phrases that were being used to find abuse, they were shown only a minority of the search terms being used, and told that “something may also be flagged to us if it appears in the same tweet as the name of an MP”. No mention was made of the fact that this applied to only 68 chosen MPs, the report claims. 

In just a few weeks an astonishing 11,250 individuals were “flagged”. Of these at least 6,000 were instantly deprived of a vote in the forthcoming leadership election while they were investigated, according to the report. 

Matthews denies the validation process was factional and points out it “was run with the express permission of the NEC’s Officers and the General Secretary”. (A full response from Matthews’ lawyers to the allegations reported in the article can be found here.)

‘Lethargy and incompetence’

The report’s third claim is the most important. It says that between the autumn of 2016 and the spring of 2018 some of those who seemed to display such energy and vigour during the validation process showed remarkable lethargy and incompetence when it came to investigating antisemitism. 

This seems not to have been for lack of resources. The number of staff in the GLU had increased during 2016 and Matthews, who took over as head of disputes in December that year, acknowledged that the team was “huge” compared with others at Labour HQ. Matthews says this comment was taken out of context and that his team was not large enough to do the job required of it. 

The report makes the staggering assertion that, prior to April 2018, the party HQ had no system for logging complaints. The report’s authors say this meant they were obliged to wade through swamps of poorly organised data. 

They estimate that between 1 November 2016 and 19 February 2018, while Iain McNicol was general secretary, the GLU received more than 300 complaints of antisemitism, at least half of which the report’s authors believe warranted action. 

But there were just ten suspensions and 24 notices of investigation during this period.

Cases that were acted upon “were mostly the result of other senior Labour staff” at party HQ and elsewhere “directly chasing” Matthews, the report asserts.

It claims that “from 1 April 2017 to 19 February 2018…  there was not a single antisemitism case that went through GLU’s designed processes and received action”.

Matthews denies factionalism and rejects the accuracy of many of the statistics used in the Labour Party report. 

In June 2016 Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of the human rights campaigning group Liberty, produced her report into racism in the Labour Party. It was much criticised. But it did lay out criteria for judging cases – along with suggestions for structural reform.

The leadership was frustrated that little attempt was made to implement these by party HQ. Instead the investigation of antisemitism remained chaotic and ad hoc, the report says. 

It was unclear whether complaints should be sent to the ‘complaints’ email address or the ‘disputes’ email address and cases piled up in both.  

The report claims that the ‘disputes’ inbox was “left completely unmanaged” for four-and-a-half months at one point.

Truly egregious examples of antisemitism appear to have gone unpunished, the report claims

At around this time, claims the Labour report, truly egregious examples of antisemitism appear to have gone unpunished. In September 2017 the GLU was provided with ten pages of screenshots from one member, including claims that the Jewish Rothschild family invented Nazism and that George Soros (whose Open Society Foundations have supported openDemocracy) and Hillary Clinton were Rothschild puppets. 

The unit received 20 pages from another member that included similar material as well as claims that Jews received a “Jew call” on the morning of 9/11, presumably intended to warn Jewish people of the impending attack on the World Trade Center. 

The report says that there is no record of any action taken against either member.

Between February and November 2017 the report found 27 complaints of antisemitism which had been forwarded by junior staff to Sam Matthews, but for which there was no record of any response nor action taken. Matthews vehemently denies this allegation.

By contrast, considerable energy was expended on cases that appeared to have factional value, the report claims. 

Between October 2017 and February 2018 the report says that 20% of emails sent by investigations officer Dan Hogan related to a single case, that of a local party secretary, who had recorded another party member making violent, Islamophobic threats against him.

Initially, the accused member was suspended. But the suspension was eventually lifted and in due course it was the accuser – a Corbyn supporter – who found himself under investigation by the disputes team. The accuser was still suspended at the time the report was written.  

Hogan questions the report’s handling of statistics and describes the report as “a shameful attempt to smear the whistleblowers who exposed obstruction and interference with efforts to tackle antisemitism. 

“The document selectively uses and misuses emails and other records to paint a highly distorted and misleading picture”, he added. He also said it was “impossible” to “respond in detail to a claim about how many emails I sent on a given case in a given period as I have no access to the emails in question from more than two years ago”. 

“There are numerous examples of antisemitism cases being pursued in this period of time which demonstrate this claim to be untrue”, Matthews said through his lawyers.

“Any suggestion that the GLU’s work was ‘serving a factional agenda’ let alone any suggestion that they deliberately ignored issues of antisemitism in order to further this fictitious factional agenda is a defamatory lie,” Matthews added.

Counter-claims

If the report is accurate, the woeful ineptitude it claims of the GLU prior to March 2018 presents Corbyn’s critics with a dilemma. This is because Matthews, Hogan and other members of the GLU at that time were the very same people who would go on to to denounce the leader’s office in the July 2019 Panorama programme ’Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’.

In the programme these staffers blamed the leadership for any shortcomings in investigating antisemitism. A similar line is taken in a submission from the Jewish Labour Movement to the ongoing Equalities and Human Rights Commission probe into the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism, leaked just before the December 2019 election.  

“Staff describe a ‘cultural shift’ in the party’s management following the 2017 general election,” the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission says. “They say that decisions by GLU staff were increasingly undermined. From the election onwards staffers say they that LOTO [Leader of the Opposition] expected the GLU staff to follow unwritten guidelines that raised the bar on which antisemitic conduct warranted disciplinary action.”

This fails to explain why just thirteen notices of investigation and six suspensions were issued in the first six months of 2017, according to Labour Party statistics. And the report claims there is no documentary evidence to support the Jewish Labour Movement’s assertion.

Even if instructions were ‘unwritten’ it is hard to see why staff who had apparently so energetically pursued the validation process in the summer of 2016, seemingly against the interests of the party leadership, should have been so easily cowed, the report says. 

New broom

And, if the leadership was indeed pressuring the GLU to go easy on offenders, it’s difficult to explain what happened when a new team more sympathetic to the party leadership was installed in the GLU in 2018. The new team quickly uncovered many of the cases apparently neglected in 2017, taking swift and decisive action against many of the offenders.

The Jewish Labour Movement’s claims are contradicted too by the fact that the leadership aggressively pressured the GLU to speed up a number of high-profile cases. The highest-profile of these concerned Ken Livingstone, as evidenced by letters from the leader’s office to the GLU, the report claims.   

Contacted for this article, the Jewish Labour Movement says its submission to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission “met the… evidence threshold to launch a full statutory investigation” and that the internal report “is but one account that seeks to explain how such a culture of anti-Jewish racism has gripped the party”.

By the end of 2017 internal correspondence shows that staff at party HQ were becoming resentful at interference by Corbyn’s team. However, the resentment seems not to have been because antisemitism cases were being slowed down, but the precise opposite.

“We are now getting demands from the leader’s office to take action on people,” wrote one senior official to Matthews, McNicol and others in November 2017. “There is… the implicit criticism and insinuation… that we are not taking action on antisemitism which, coming from LOTO, is painfully ironic.” The report claims there is no evidence for the stated irony.

The report has no hesitation in identifying Sam Matthews, the head of disputes, as the main obstacle to action on anti-Semitism during this period. “This is simply not true and deeply offensive,” says Matthews. 

According to the report, attempts by the leader’s office to tackle the situation were hindered by the fact that, in reports to superiors, Matthews both understated the number of complaints the party was receiving and overstated the number of people being suspended. “The Party believes that Matthews may have invented the numbers he reported,” the report states. Matthews labeled this “a ridiculous accusation”.

What is not at issue is that by the start of 2018 many Jewish groups were angry at apparent inaction by the Labour Party on antisemitism. 

According to the report, their frustration was fully shared by Corbyn and his team. On 21 February 2018 Corbyn himself wrote to the general secretary, Iain McNicol, expressing exasperation that “the Chakrabarti Report has still not been fully implemented”. 

He added: “It is clear that the current processes are far too slow to meet the volume of disciplinary cases the party has to deal with.”

At the end of February McNicol stood down to be replaced as general secretary by Corbyn ally Jennie Formby. She instantly declared tackling antisemitism would be a priority.  

In the three months after she took over as general secretary in April 2018, 29 people were suspended from the party in connection with allegations of antisemitism. This compares with just ten during the entire period from 1 November 2016 to 19 February 2018.

In other words, almost three times as many party members were suspended in the first three months of Formby’s period as general secretary as in the last fifteen-and-a-half months McNicol was in charge. Detailed figures for 2019 and earlier periods have been published by the Labour Party separately from the internal report. 

Furthermore 39 people were issued with notices of investigation in the first three months of Formby’s tenure, compared with just 22 from 1 November 2016 to 19 February 2018.

Figures for disciplinary action began to rise during the transition period, even before Formby formally took up her post on 3 April. Over 2018 as a whole 283 suspensions and notices of investigation were issued. The figure for 2019 was 579.

Just one person was expelled in connection with antisemitism in 2016 and 2017. The figure for 2018 was ten and for 2019 it was nineteen. 

Screenshot 2020-06-26 at 14.27.05.png
A table showing numbers of suspensions and investigations, from the leaked report

These published figures in themselves suggest the dominant media narrative throughout Jeremy Corbyn’s period as leader was misleading. They indicate Jennie Formby – who was battling cancer through much of this period and was often the focus of ferocious criticism – transformed Labour’s handling of antisemitism. 

They are also consistent with the narrative of the internal Labour report.

They raise an obvious question. How could a leadership allegedly so tolerant of antisemitism have overseen such a rise in disciplinary action as soon as it had firm control of the party apparatus? 

How could a leadership allegedly so tolerant of antisemitism have overseen such a rise in disciplinary action as soon as it had firm control of the party apparatus? 

Sam Matthews, who the report claims regularly presented misleading statistics himself, has come up with one answer.

In a long interview with the Jewish Chronicle published the day after the Panorama programme, he said that Formby must have “massaged the figures she produced”. Matthews’ lawyer said: “Any evidence that my client has on this matter has been supplied to the [Equalities and Human Rights Commission],” referring to the ongoing investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into the party’s handling of antisemitism. 

The detailed figures for 2018 were available from February 2019. And the Labour Party told the July 2019 Panorama programme there had been a four-fold increase in the rate at which antisemitism complaints were processed since Formby became general secretary. 

Panorama reported the Labour Party’s claim that complaints were being processed four times faster under the new regime. Yet neither the BBC nor any other mainstream media outlet we can find explored the statistical contradiction at the heart of the prevailing narrative on Corbyn and antisemitism that this implied.

The Panorama effect

In the Panorama programme Sam Matthews described the Labour Party as “institutionally racist”. Dan Hogan described Jennie Formby’s assertion that tackling antisemitism was a priority as “a joke.”

The programme presented Matthews, Hogan and another staff member as having been effectively driven out of the Governance and Legal Unit disputes team in June 2018 by officials less keen to confront antisemites, while Matthews said he was driven to the brink of suicide.

The report says there is nothing in the documentation to indicate this was their grievance. Hogan has told openDemocracy that he was never asked by the Labour Party why he left. 

According to the report, Matthews had recently been the subject of a formal complaint by a member of his team for alleged bullying and racial discrimination. He denies the allegation and claims to have had no knowledge of the complaint at the time he left. “Mr Matthews’ only option was to leave to safeguard his mental health,” his lawyers said to openDemocracy. 

The documentary had a dramatic effect. Panorama’s investigation was hungrily followed up in the press and played a significant role in shaping an anti-Corbyn narrative in last December’s general election. 

It was widely interpreted as showing that the Labour leadership tried to thwart quick action on antisemitism. For example, the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote that Panorama: 

showed how Corbyn’s team repeatedly interfered in antisemitism cases as they went through a supposedly independent disciplinary process, ‘mainly so they could let their mates off the charge’, as one whisteblower, driven to the brink of suicide, put it.  

In a statement for this article the BBC said it “stands by its journalism”, noting, “no complaints have been upheld by the BBC Executive Complaints Unit”. (For a full response to allegations reported in this article from John Ware, the programme’s reporter, see here.)  

Ofcom also rejected complaints against the programme, judging it to have been “duly impartial”.

But the sheer quantity of evidence presented in the leaked Labour document raises serious questions about the narrative put forward in the Panorama programme and the wider media. Its 851 pages tell a different and more complex story about Labour and antisemitism.

It confirms that the party did indeed have an antisemitism problem among a small minority of its 580,000 members. It also confirms that the party was inexcusably slow in dealing with the problem. 

But it provides evidence suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn cannot be blamed for this, and that the fault lies with the party apparatus which he inherited, and which he lacked the political power to change until 2018. 

Starmer’s dilemma

Labour’s new leadership elected not to present the report to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but has launched an independent investigation into it. An update on that inquiry is due to report back next month.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission investigation into Labour antisemitism has requested access to the report, according to a number of stories in the media, while an open letter from more than 2,000 members has demanded that action be taken on some of the claims in the report.

This month, Labour member Mark Howell took action against the party for alleged breach of contract based on the content of the report, and Labour said in the resulting court case that it had suspended members as a result of the report, though it’s not clear who, nor when they were suspended.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is due to deliver a draft version of its findings to the Labour party imminently.

That the traditional media has failed, almost entirely, to report these suspensions and the ongoing legal proceedings is, to say the least, odd. It has also largely failed to report the contents of the leaked report. Newspapers and broadcasters have no interest in publicising a document that asks serious questions about the narrative they pushed so unquestioningly regarding Corbyn and antisemitism. 

This is cowardly and irresponsible. Either they need to show that the Labour report is wrong – or they owe Jeremy Corbyn , Jennie Formby and others an apology. They at least have an obligation to report the other side of the argument.

This applies to the BBC and The Guardian as much as it does to the Conservative press.

They might also owe the same apology to British voters, who, if the Labour internal report is correct, were seriously misled ahead of one of the most important general elections in recent history.


Editors’ note: lengthy responses to this piece have been received from a number of the people mentioned here. You can read them (with some names redacted) at the links below:

Reply from John Ware

Reply from Sam Matthews

Reply from Dan Hogan

Lawyers for Ware, Matthews and Hogan also compiled some Tweets from one of the co-authors of this piece. This document is here, shared for full transparency:  

Addendum on Justin Schlosberg

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