[See the bottom of this article for a statement by Glyn Secker, Jewish Voice For Labour (JVL) National Secretary, and subsequent reply from John Ware]
The UK is facing economic meltdown. The world may be heading for nuclear Armageddon. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, have been preoccupied with salvaging his reputation over the antisemitism crisis that dogged his leadership for more than four years.
Did Corbyn or his office interfere politically in antisemitism disciplinary cases when he was Labour leader — or did they not?
Disciplinary cases were meant to be determined by officials at Labour Party HQ independently of the Leader or his political advisers.
In April 2020 Corbyn supporters found vindication in a leaked internal report by Corbyn staffers which, perhaps unsurprisingly, concluded allegations of interference were “entirely untrue.”
Six months later, the statutory investigation into Labour by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluded there had been interference: “We found evidence of political interference in the handling of antisemitism complaints throughout the period of the investigation”, thereby unlawfully discriminating against Jewish members. The EHRC blamed a “lack of leadership” within Labour “which is hard to reconcile with its stated commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism.”
Then, last summer, Corbyn’s supporters were buoyed up by a report by the barrister Martin Forde KC which accused the mainstream media of being “entirely misleading” in how we reported allegations of interference.
So where, in this attritional battle for the truth, does the truth actually lie?
I must declare an interest because I presented the programme most often mentioned in the Forde Report: BBC Panorama’s “Is Labour antisemitic? ”transmitted in July 2019
A fortnight ago, the “Investigation Unit” of the Qatari-based Al Jazeera TV network piled in. Its central allegation against the BBC came from Corbyn’s Director of Strategic Communications, James Schneider.
He claimed to have “exposed” how Panorama had misleadingly presented evidence to suggest there was “unwarranted meddling” by Corbyn or his office “in antisemitism cases.”
After Corbyn’s election catastrophe in 2019,a senior Labour source said Panorama was “undoubtedly one of the biggest factors in destroying our chances” – a claim others might find puzzling, given Corbyn’s deficiencies on several other fronts. His unpopularity with the electorate was apparent long before Panorama was broadcast.
In any case, since Al Jazeera’s broadcast, Corbyn supporters have felt further vindicated by the absence of a response from me to Schneider’s allegation and also to Forde’s, that Panorama had misled viewers over political interference.
Al Jazeera’s Producer, Richard Sanders, said: “The BBC has made no attempt at response at all. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the strategy is to stand still, not blink, and hope that we go away.”
In fact, the BBC did respond by saying that many of the points raised by Al Jazeera had already been thoroughly examined and held to be unfounded during the course of the enquiries by the BBC Executive Complaints Unit and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.
And last week, I wrote a short response in the Jewish Chronicle which the paper headlined: “Al Jazeera’s central allegation against my BBC programme can be easily debunked.”
This weekend, the Corbyn-supporting media academic-activist Dr Justin Schlosberg responded: “Laughably, he doesn’t engage at all with the main substance” of Schneider’s interview on Al Jazeera.
Which is true. I hadn’t engaged with “the substance” of Schneider’s interview on Al Jazeera, for the simple reason that I thought it might bore the pants off everyone and I wanted people to read my article.
But on second thoughts, it now seems to me that laying out in forensic detail all the evidence that underpinned our case might be revealing and even quite interesting, because in my view it might suggest that some Corbynites have become impervious to evidence that undermines their case. So, I’m now going to set out that evidence in all its detail.
To the frustration of the Corbynites, both the Labour Party (from Corbyn’s time) and his supporters in a pressure group unaffiliated to the Labour party but called Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), most of them radical Left anti-Zionist Jews, have already had to apologise in open court and pay damages and costs to me for a series of defamatory statements.
Labour has also apologised and paid damages to seven ex-Labour party officials who blew the whistle on Panorama about how the antisemitism crisis under Corbyn had developed and the rancorous climate inside the party. Labour and the JVL have accepted there was no truth in their allegations.
None of what the Corbynites and Al Jazeera have now said about Panorama misleading the public over interference by Corbyn’s office is true either.
But the way that Martin Forde KC has presented the evidence against Panorama has confirmed them in their belief that it is. His apparent indictment of our investigation as “entirely misleading” is their “Gotcha” moment.
So, I’ll start with the Forde Report. The devil is in the detail, so bear with me because it’s important that people understand the facts, at least as lawyers, I and those in the BBC with no involvement in the programme, see them.
In compiling his report, Forde was assisted by three fellow panelists — all eminent Labour peers – and a secretariat provided by a leading London law firm.
Forde and his colleagues have striven earnestly to be judicious over a vast amount of extremely complex and contested territory. But their reference to Panorama in its full context is very puzzling indeed.
The report’s section headed “Media criticism of LOTO (Leader of the Opposition’s Office) involvement” concludes: “….it is entirely misleading….to imply that” emails relating to antisemitism disciplinary cases in March-April 2018 “in themselves were evidence of those LOTO staff members inserting themselves unbidden into the disciplinary process for factional reasons.” The section specifically refers to Panorama, as well as to a handful of articles on Sky News and various newspapers.
However, in the whole of Forde’s report, Panorama is mentioned ten times, more than any other media outlet. The report refers to extracts of email exchanges between Labour Party officials in its Governance and Legal Unit (GLU) that investigate complaints and LOTO over a specific disciplinary case included in the programme.
That case was the decision by the GLU to suspend one of Corbyn’s political allies, Glyn Secker, from the party on 7 March 2018. That decision was almost immediately challenged by Corbyn’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, the ex-Guardian columnist Seumas Milne.
Secker is Secretary of the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) and the son of a Holocaust survivor. Whilst Milne acknowledged that, as with other ethnic minorities, there were “a very small number of Jewish people who can adopt antisemitic attitudes”, he did not regard the evidence against Secker as demonstrating that he was one of them. However, the GLU felt they had evidence showing that Secker had at least taken his anti-Zionism to an inflammatory level, for the following reasons.
After the Israeli justice minister suggested that European advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign were the new antisemites, Secker had tweeted “THE CIRCULARITY Jew=Zionism=Israel=Jew”, followed by a quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”
Had Secker said simply that Israel doesn’t represent all Jews, that would have been true and unremarkable. But by inserting Tolkien’s Ring verse about sinister and wicked power, the GLU considered that Secker had revived the antisemitic trope about Zionism as a malevolent all-controlling force that claims to represent the world’s Jews — when of course it doesn’t.
Secker had also approvingly re-tweeted the American historian Norman Finkelstein’s support for Labour MP Naz Shah, over her Facebook post suggesting that the Israel-Palestine conflict could easily be resolved by the “transportation” of Jews out of Israel to America. The imagery of “transporting” Jews was redolent of jam-packed cattle trucks transporting Europe’s Jews to Nazi death camps. Shah quickly expressed her deep sorry for “causing upset and hurt to the Jewish community.”
Secker had also twice posted suggestions that Israel was in cahoots with ISIS by purchasing ISIS oil, in order to fan the flames of antisemitism, thereby generating sympathy for Israel and so deflecting criticism of its treatment of Palestinians. “It’s a conspiracy theory that fits with the model of Jews/Israel/Zionists being blamed for whatever ‘bad thing’ is afflicting society at any given time,” says Dr Dave Rich, Head of Policy at the Community Security Trust, the charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism and related threats.
On 9 March, Labour’s then Executive Director of Governance, Emilie Oldknow, enclosed some of the evidence against Secker to two senior members of Corbyn’s office, Seumas Milne and his Chief of Staff Karie Murphy: “See attached. We would normally suspend with this. View?” Milne replied: “Looks problematic to me. I’ll email in the morning.”
On 10 March, Milne’s email listed his strong objections to Secker’s suspension, emphasising that as a “leading” JVL member and “long-term Middle East rights activist…it’s pretty clear that we’re misidentifying political arguments for anti-Semitism…something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism.” Oldknow then ordered the GLU to lift Secker’s suspension.
It appears that because Oldknow had sought Milne’s “View” of the evidence against Secker, Forde finds that the involvement of Corbyn’s office did not amount to interference, because LOTO’s advice had been sought by Oldknow.
If that is Forde’s reasoning, it would seem to take no account of the fact that the only reason Oldknow sought LOTO’s “View” in the first place was because LOTO had made a series of interventions over the two previous days — beginning just four hours after Secker’s suspension – wholly unsolicited by the GLU. Yet Forde makes no mention of these earlier interventions at all.
Nor does his report mention the fact that, having not received a reply to her request on 9 March for Milne’s “View”, at 19.39 that evening Oldknow pressed him and Murphy for a response, explaining: “Ordinarily, we would ask him [Secker] these questions but Andrew [Murray] is keen that we just lift the suspension. Can you confirm for me please?”(Andrew Murray was another senior LOTO adviser to Corbyn who had asked him to investigate Secker’s suspension.)
As Oldknow later explained: “I would not have been discussing this if LOTO had not already involved themselves in dealing with AS complaints as I wouldn’t have needed to.”
The absence of what seems to me to be highly relevant references to the test Forde had set himself — was LOTO’s intervention in Secker “unbidden” (as he puts it), or bidden – is baffling, because these references are set out in detail on pp 434-442 in the leaked internal Labour report which was the very subject of his investigation. Neither Oldknow nor Matthews have any recollection of being questioned about Secker when they appeared before Forde and his fellow panelists over several hours.
The several interventions by Corbyn’s office which caused Oldknow to seek Milne’s “View” on the merits of Secker’s suspension are as follows:
At 17.55 on 7 March: Milne messaged Chief of Staff Murphy, General Secretary Iain McNicol and Oldknow: “A Jewish activist called Glyn Secker has been suspended for antisemitism on the basis of the fb [Facebook] Palestine Live story. Seems to be a mistake as there’s nothing on him in the [Palestine Live] dossier. Can you check if there’s something else? Otherwise needs urgent rethink.”
At 16.56 on 8 March: Corbyn’s Stakeholder Manager, Laura Murray, emailed the head of GLU investigations, Sam Matthews: “Can we please get the details of Glyn Secker’s suspension? Will keep totally confidential of course.”
At 09.45 on 9 March: Matthews replied to Murray: “We’ve sent details of Secker’s suspension to Karie [Murphy] and Seumas [Milne] – we’re currently awaiting a response from them.”
At 11.15: Senior Corbyn adviser Andrew Murray emailed Milne and Murphy: “Jeremy [Corbyn] has asked me to look into it urgently.”
At 11.32: Matthews sent Oldknow and her deputy John Stolliday the draft questions they intended to put to Secker: “I’ll be sending over a full report on the Palestine Live dossier in the next hour to raise with LOTO. In the meantime, we’re ready to send the attached letter with screenshots and questions to Secker. Just need the go-ahead from LOTO on this one in particular.”
I understand that LOTO had also instructed Oldknow to send messages between Stolliday and Matthews to Murphy and Milne.
It was only after all these interventions — all wholly “unbidden” by Oldknow and Matthews — that Oldknow sought Milne’s “View”.
Therefore, there can be no reasonable doubt that the determining force that ultimately led to the GLU lifting Secker’s suspension on 10 March was interference by LOTO, and initiated by LOTO, in an antisemitism disciplinary case. Indeed, a senior LOTO adviser with knowledge of the case has acknowledged to me that “there was proactive interference” over Secker.
On the day that Labour apologised in court for defaming me and the Panorama whistleblowers, the media academic Justin Schlosberg asserted: “In fact, the full email thread shows clearly that Milne did not initiate the discussion: he had been asked to give his opinion concerning the Secker case” – even though what the timeline of messages clearly shows is that the discussion was indeed “initiated” by Milne at 17.55 two days earlier.
I don’t mean to be in any way rude to my detractors, but in my opinion this is an example of what I mean when I say that some seem impervious to accommodating facts that run counter to a narrative that they’ve so firmly and passionately settled on.
Likewise, Al Jazeera appears to have justified their allegation that Panorama had misled viewers solely on the narrow point that Oldknow had sought Milne’s “View”, with no mention at all of the fact that she was responding to LOTO’s intervention from the outset: “Our investigation finds that communications director Seamus Milne is specifically asked for his ‘view’ by Emily Oldknow…”
“Investigation” is rather a grand word in this instance. All Al Jazeera’s “investigators” would need to have done is to read p 441 of Labour’s leaked report, where Oldknow’s “View” email was published, and p 444 for Milne’s response. The question is: did they also read the rest of that chapter on Glynn Secker? If so, they could not have missed the many other messages documenting LOTO’s proactive interference.
Even Al Jazeera’s interviewee — Corbyn spokesman James Schneider – made no mention of the evidence that LOTO interference from the start was the only reason Oldknow asked for LOTO’s “View” in the first place. Yet Schneider was the first member of LOTO to intervene in the case – 43 minutes before even Milne. At 17.12 on 7 March, Schneider texted Matthews: “Why Glyn Secker?…”
Furthermore, Secker was suspended after Schneider that morning had asked Matthews to find party members to suspend so that the media could be briefed after Prime Minister’s questions that Labour was dealing robustly with antisemitism, following the overnight disclosure that Corbyn had been a member of the virulent antisemitic Facebook group Palestine Live. Again, neither Schneider nor Al Jazeera made mention of this. Corbyn, I should emphasise, said that he had no knowledge of Palestine Live’s antisemitic content.
Forde is correct in saying that some media outlets wrongly implied “LOTO staff members” had inserted themselves “unbidden into the disciplinary process” when, in reality, LOTO’s help had been sought [i.e. bidden] by the GLU.
But all those cases in which the GLU sought LOTO’s view followed directly on from Secker in March and April 2018. And Panorama did not report on any of them as examples of LOTO interference, because to do so would indeed have been “entirely misleading”.
It was precisely because LOTO’s interference in Secker was the culmination of previous acts of interference in antisemitism and other disciplinary cases by LOTO and by some Corbyn supporters on the NEC going back to late 2015, that the Secker case marked the moment when Oldknow decided she’d had enough. She determined that the GLU would refer all future cases to LOTO for their written sign-off. “Glyn Secker’s case was a catalyst for formalising this suspension/action sign-off arrangement of the disciplinary process,” said Oldknow in her submission to the EHRC.
Some two dozen cases were duly signed off by LOTO in this way over the rest of March and April 2018. Panorama was fully aware of how LOTO’s inference in Secker was the turning point for Oldknow. Did not Forde and his legal secretariat discover that? I ask because Forde appears to have simply lumped Secker in with those later 24 cases, when the two are quite distinct. So I wrote to Forde to ask him why he had done this.
Forde declined to “engage on the substance” of his report until he’d appeared before Labour’s National Executive Committee, except to say that he and his panel had “conducted a very thorough and careful forensic process, during which we heard and considered a wide range of evidence, both oral and written.”
Forde published back in July. No NEC invitation has yet been offered to him and Labour sources have told me that it may never be. I gather that relations between Forde and Labour’s legal department have become frayed.
In any case, to accuse the BBC of “entirely misleading” viewers is a serious allegation and the Corporation should have been offered the right of a response by Forde, but no attempt was made to seek it. The BBC has now made a formal challenge to Forde in a detailed letter because his report has done reputational damage to the BBC and to me. The Corporation has declined to publish the content of the letter but says it does “not believe the evidence can support” a conclusion that Panorama was misleading.
Forde, however, told me he is “at a loss as to why” his report “can be construed as causing reputational damage to you or the Corporation.” Corbyn’s supporters clearly think otherwise.
His report triggered a triumphal fusillade of scornful comments: the ex-General Secretary of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, tweeted that Forde had dealt a “devastating blow to the accuracy of the 2019 Panorama programme into antisemitism in Labour.”
Justin Schlosberg, the media academic activist tweeted: “Just like the Forde Report, #LabourFiles has exposed the complete collapse of basic journalistic standards in @BBCPanorama’s episode ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’”
He also said: “Shows just how far @BBCPanorama had to go in manipulating and omitting key parts of its own evidence in order to produce what the Forde inquiry called ‘entirely misleading’ reportage. If anything, Forde was putting it mildly.”
For Aaron Bastani, the editor of the pro-Corbyn Novara Media, Al Jazeera had driven “a stake through [the] heart of both Panorama and John Ware’s professional reputation.”
For the commentator Peter Oborne, who described himself as Al Jazeera’s “expert commentator”, the Forde report “is especially significant.”
Of all the “false” reporting during the Corbyn era, says Oborne, none was more egregious than the “terrible claim” that his “inner team intervened in disciplinary processes to protect friends and allies from antisemitism charges.”
Yet the EHRC statutory investigation into Labour found that LOTO political interference in antisemitism cases had been going on since 2016 and extended beyond April 2018, the date when LOTO said its brief involvement with the GLU ended. The EHRC also found that LOTO interference in antisemitism cases was more “extensive or systematic” than it had been in non-antisemitism cases (e.g. sexual harassment complaints).
Al Jazeera, however, claims Labour’s focus on antisemitism was at the expense of racism within the party against other minorities and created a “hierarchy of racism that discriminated against Black, Asian and Muslim members.” The JVL’s media spokesperson Naomi Wimborne Idrissi castigates Labour for having “allowed a hierarchy of racism to develop, and Forde actually uses that terminology.”
Not quite. What Forde actually says is that the “attention” caused by “the surge” in antisemitism cases, and the “importance they appeared to play” in the factional conflict between Party HQ and the Corbynites, had led to a perception that Labour was “in effect operating a hierarchy of racism.” Yet it is a fact that antisemitic complaints continue to this day to be by far the single largest source of complaints in Labour, dwarfing complaints about anti-black or anti-Muslim racism. That may, of course, be due to a greater reluctance to complain; it’s impossible to know.
Oborne also complains about what he calls the mainstream media’s “Omerta” [silence] in the wake of Al Jazeera’s “diligent journalism” which, he says, deserves a “conscientious and detailed response.”
I rather doubt that my own aforementioned “conscientious and detailed response” to the substance of the Corbynites’ main complaint against Panorama will make much difference. New facts, as best known to me, set out over the last three years in a sincere attempt to respond to persistent attacks on the programme have cut no ice with the four main defenders of Corbyn against Panorama: Messrs. Oborne, Schlosberg, Bastani and the Al Jazeera producer Richard Sanders.
They continue, for example, to insist that, far from interfering in antisemitism cases, Corbyn and his office pushed for more action. It’s true that sometimes they did, but whether this was rarely or often is not known.
Yet this takes no account of the compelling evidence of interference, direct and indirect, to slow down, or even prevent disciplinary action against political allies, beginning with the investigation (or Review) into antisemitism allegations in 2016 at Oxford University Labour Club that triggered Corbyn’s crisis.
It maybe that my critics are unaware of the details, but I have seen statements detailing how Corbyn’s Office was “vigorously” opposed to a Review of the allegations, LOTO’s attempt to prevent the words “antisemitism” even being used in the NEC statement announcing the Review, opposition to the choice of Labour peer Baroness Royall to conduct that Review, apparently on grounds that she had once visited Israel with Labour Friends of Israel, and pressure on General Secretary McNicol to not suspend undergraduate Labour party members under investigation. At one meeting an official was “stunned” to hear a senior LOTO adviser is even noted as having referred to the allegations as a “Jewish conspiracy” – which did at least draw a reprimand from another senior member of Corbyn’s staff.
The case that Oborne, Schlosberg and Sanders have often cited as a prime example of Corbyn acting in a principled way, without fear or favour, even to his political supporters, is that of his very close ally, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone.
In the Spring of 2018, Livingstone was due to have his two-year suspension extended after doubling down in 2017 on his historically incorrect claim that “Hitler supported Zionism”, along with his assertion of active “real” collaboration between German Jews and the Nazis.
Schlosberg asserts that Corbyn’s office encouraged “swifter and tougher sanctions against Livingstone without unduly interfering in the decision-making process itself.” I don’t know what lies behind Schlosberg’s interesting use of the word “unduly”, but Oborne and Sanders assert without caveat that allegations of intervention in the Livingstone case is the “precise opposite“ of “what was true”.
They are wrong.
What is true is that Corbyn’s stakeholder manager Laura Murray warned the GLU that delays in processing several high-profile cases, including Livingstone, were impeding her attempts to rebuild trust with the Jewish community. Murray’s outreach was sincere and she went on to make a significant contribution to improving the complaints process.
Aside from Murray’s push, however, it would be untrue to say Corbyn’s closest LOTO aides were “encouraging swifter and tougher sanctions against Livingstone.”
I have seen statements detailing how in February 2018 Oldknow was telephoned while on leave, as she sat in a Tesco car park, by Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne. “We want to talk to you about Ken,” Oldknow is reported to have been was told. ”Ken is very important to Jeremy. He’s very important on the Left.”
The statements record that Oldknow was asked if she could find a way of ensuring that the case against Livingstone was dropped, so that he could be readmitted to the Labour Party. Oldknow was told not to discuss this with anyone else, including the General Secretary Iain McNicol.
Murphy and Milne explained they had been to Livingstone’s home and extracted a promise not to give any more interviews about Hitler and Zionism.
This allegation of direct interference by Corbyn and his office in the case of his close political ally was put in writing to Corbyn by the Jewish Chronicle on my behalf in September 2020. The email spelled out that at Corbyn’s behest, his two senior aides had tried to stop the disciplinary process against Livingstone in order to get him readmitted to the Labour party. In his response, Corbyn did not deny that allegation, but answered with a different point: Milne and Murphy had persuaded Livingstone to resign, he said.
What Corbyn omitted to say was that this only happened after Milne and Murphy had tried and failed to get Oldknow to drop the charges against Livingstone in the first place.
If anyone doubts the truth of what I am saying, I can reproduce the correspondence which shows how Corbyn avoided addressing the allegation that this intervention in a disciplinary case against a key political ally was done at his behest by his two most senior aides. James Schneider should also recall this episode, because he was the interlocutor between the Jewish Chronicle and Corbyn. Yet even after I set out this evidence, Schlosberg, Oborne and Sanders continued to assert there was no political interference by Corbyn or his office in Livingstone. They didn’t have to take my word for it. My allegation was checkable. Again, it’s why I am reduced to speculating that on some parts of the Corbyn narrative his defenders appear impervious to the facts. Perhaps they have a compelling counter-narrative, in which case let’s hear it.
There is a real danger of history being rewritten about antisemitism under Corbyn and to some extent that is already happening – including by Corbyn himself.
On the eve of Al Jazeera’s “Labour Files”, Corbyn gave an interview in which he said that he’d “discovered on becoming leader that any disciplinary action was actually subject to the nod or refusal of the Leader’s office. And I thought ‘well, this is absurd.’” So, he “insisted” on “a proper process of independence.”
Maybe he did, but it also seems clear that this “proper process” was not always followed. The EHRC said that besides finding “specific examples” of political interference, “equally of concern was a lack of leadership within the Labour Party” on the issue.
Forde also found: “We consider that there is enough evidence of direct intervention to support the conclusion that such interference at times went beyond what was the legitimate interest of LOTO, most notably in relation to cases which involved allies of Jeremy Corbyn.”
Yet an Al Jazeera viewer could be forgiven for thinking Forde had found little or no political interference by Corbyn or his office in antisemitism cases.
From several revealing passages in Forde about the scale of interference, the programme selected this one: “We have not received clear and convincing documentary evidence that there was a systematic attempt by the elected leadership to interfere unbidden in the disciplinary process in order to undermine the party’s response to allegations of antisemitism.”
Note Forde’s three lawyerly qualifiers: not having found sufficient “documentary evidence” to demonstrate a “systemic” attempt by the elected leadership (i.e. Corbyn) to interfere uninvited in the disciplinary process with the intention of undermining Labour’s response to the crisis. Forde makes no finding on whether those attempts had the effect of undermining the party’s response.
Forde also reveals that “numerous” non-documented “examples of LOTO pressure and interference” were submitted by witnesses to his inquiry. Understandably, he couldn’t make any findings of fact on those “numerous examples” because, unlike the “alleged March to April 2018 interferences”, there were no “paper trails.”
This was unsurprising, since those examples involved verbal conversations and telephone calls between LOTO and Labour’s most senior management, above the pay grade of those GLU staffers who appeared on Panorama as “Whistle-blowers.”
Here’s an extract from a submission to the EHRC by Emilie Oldknow. Her evidence should be taken seriously because Corbyn’s most senior advisers took her seriously. Karie Murphy, Andrew Murray and Len McCluskey urged Oldknow to stay on after Corbyn took control of the Party bureaucracy, following general secretary Iain McNicol’s departure in March 2018. Oldknow declined because she had had enough of the toxic climate. She was awarded an OBE for Political Service in the 2019 New Year’s Honours List.
Her EHRC submission paints a picture of active and regular LOTO interest in disciplinary cases against “supporters or friends” of LOTO. There were “regular meetings with LOTO staff including Seumas Milne, Karie Murphy and Amy Jackson (Corbyn’s political secretary) to discuss……. ….disciplinary cases…LOTO took an active interest in the complaints and would challenge recommendations to suspend or expel members on a regular basis… LOTO were blaming (GLU) staff for suspending people without their sign-off. In other words, there was an ‘informal’ approval arrangement for suspensions in place…..this created an extremely pressurised environment to work in.”
Nowhere in the Al Jazeera documentary is there any mention of Forde’s reference to receiving “numerous examples of LOTO pressure and interference”.
By contrast, from its sample of 70 antisemitism cases, the statutory EHRC investigation found evidence of “23 instances of political interference by LOTO staff and others” (and sometimes more than once in a case) which included “clear examples of interference at various stages throughout the complaint handling process, including in decisions on whether to investigate and whether to suspend.”
On Al Jazeera, Corbyn’s speechwriter Alex Nunns minimised this EHRC finding on interference, without challenge. He ridiculed the EHRC by highlighting its single reference to what appears to have been Laura Murray’s intervention “to speed up” Livingstone’s disciplinary hearing, yet simultaneously omitted the EHRC’s other references critical of LOTO for delaying Livingstone’s proceedings. For example, the EHRC quotes a “LOTO staff member referring to the timing” of Livingstone’s case being brought before the NEC disciplinary panel in March 2018 as: ‘V difficult timing—lots of politics. Discuss with [initials removed] about tabling it later. Need to discuss in LOTO over timing.’” Was LOTO intervening to buy time in the hope that Oldknow would find a way of dropping the charges before Livingstone’s appearance at the panel?
Nunns also said the EHRC had found that “many” interventions made by Corbyn’s office “were actually to try to speed up processes or to ask why nothing was being done.” He exaggerates. The EHRC refers only to “some” interventions aimed at “catalysed action.”
Similarly, although the EHRC doesn’t say how many of the 23 interventions were to “catalyse action”, Sanders seems to think he knows: “It appears likely that the bulk of the interventions were aimed at expediting disciplinary action rather than hindering it.” Why is it “likely”? Nothing in the report shows that. It’s just speculation.
I doubt there will ever be agreement on either the scale of interference or even what it constitutes.
Forde says he “appreciate[s] [that] the pressure GLU staff felt themselves under rarely manifested itself in writing and it will be hard for us to comprehend the cumulative effect of difficult NEC meetings, telephone calls, in person confrontations and so on, which have been described to us.”
Nonetheless, his report “accept[s] in broad terms that there was a cumulative build-up of pressure on GLU staff in this period, not least from parts of the membership falsely accusing them of ‘a witch-hunt’ in relation to antisemitism and that they were operating in an extremely difficult environment.” Curiously Forde makes no mention of the Secker case as the moment that cumulative build-up of pressure from LOTO and Corbynite NEC members reached breaking point for the GLU — which is why we included it in the Panorama programme.
The truth about antisemitism in the Corbyn era has become hopelessly tangled, but those genuinely curious about where the truth lies will not find answers to their questions from Al Jazeera’s “Labour Files” or their cheerleaders.
The Al Jazeera Producer Richard Sanders and Peter Oborne are piqued that mainstream media and politicians have all but ignored their “investigation” into their truth about antisemitism crisis.
There’s a reason for that. A documentary that never offered interviews to any of those accused, but which gave free reign to their 20 accusers without a single question put to any of them, and with brief written responses from those accused bunched up at the end of the programme, feels more like agenda journalism than mainstream investigative journalism.
Nor will the kind of ad hominem abuse dished out by Al Jazeera’s star witness Halima Khan make that abuse any the more truthful.
According to Khan, a youthful pro-Palestinian activist hired under Corbyn as an investigator of antisemitism and other disciplinary cases, both the Panorama “whistle-blowers” and I have been “lying though [our] teeth”. Get that? “Lying”. Deliberately setting out to spread falsehoods. Scheming to deceive.
For any of that to be true, it would mean we had all conspired to mislead, that we knew X, but knowingly disseminated Y. She also asserts out of nowhere that I have a “history of Islamophobia” – an allegation for which the JVL have recently had to apologise in court.
This is, unfortunately, just a sample of the fact-free defamatory invective that Panorama’s whistle-blowers and I have routinely received from many Corbynites supporters over the last three years. In this case Khan’s eruption was retweeted by the rapper Lowkey and by Justin Schlosberg who, as a media academic lecturing to the next generation of journalists at Birkbeck College would, I’m sure, wish to be taken seriously, despite defamatory declarations he has previously made claiming to know what was — or wasn’t — in my head.
A credible history of what actually happened during the Corbyn years is needed. But it won’t be settled by those of his supporters who find it impossible to resist reflexively attributing malign motives to arguments with which, in their righteousness, they so passionately disagree.
Nor by those who make sweeping assertions. In the Al Jazeera documentary, Oborne produced a graph showing that the number of “investigations, suspensions and expulsions went up exponentially” once Corbyn got control of Party HQ under his appointed General Secretary Jenny Formby. Oborne, Sanders and Schlosberg essentially argue the antisemitism crisis was caused not by a failure of Corbyn’s leadership but by the failure of the GLU under Formby’s predecessor Iain McNicol to grip the crisis in the first place.
Sanders asserts: “The moment Jennie Corbyn [he means Formby] and people sympathetic and supportive of Corbyn take over the [Party] machinery in the spring of 2018, disciplinary procedures for anti-Semitism just go through the roof!” Journalists should “just do your homework” he says.
My “homework” reveals a rather more nuanced picture of Oborne’s graph. Overall, there certainly were major improvements in complaints processing during Formby’s tenure from March 2018 onwards. But it’s far too simplistic to credit Formby and Corbyn with all of them, and to blame McNicol and his team for everything that went wrong. This is quite apart from the shortcomings in Corbyn’s leadership over the antisemitism crisis — which some who were close to him have today privately acknowledged to me.
Here’s one reason why suspensions under McNichol were low. Statements to the EHRC record how “suspensions pending investigation” were discouraged by Corbyn’s office, who told senior management: “Jeremy doesn’t like it.” The Chakrabarti report commissioned by Corbyn likewise recommended suspensions be used sparingly. Labour’s NEC then introduced a category below “Suspension” called “Notice of Investigation.”
More importantly, the complaints system was inherently dysfunctional – and remained so well into Formby’s era, because no complaints system in any political party on earth could have tackled that tsunami of complaints that deluged the GLU after Corbyn became leader.
Forde reveals that in 2016 — the first full year of Corbyn’s leadership —there were some 5,000 unresolved complaints, almost 1500 relating to antisemitism alone. The numbers then continued to rise exponentially. Small wonder that many were lost track of, as has been alleged.
As Vice Chair of the NEC during McNicol’s time in office, Formby did not exactly help. She blocked McNicol’s proposal to hire nine regional investigators, which Forde says was “in essence” a “good idea” to “help address the problems in the complaints and disciplinary process” but which “appears to have been opposed, and eventually thwarted by opposition from LOTO and the left on the NEC.” Meanwhile, the GLU struggled to reform a necessarily chaotic system with the gradual introduction of a proper system for tracking the avalanche of complaints.
Due to software problems, that system only began to bear fruit some months after Formby took over. Another initiative — to accelerate the adjudication of complaints by using three person NEC panels meeting more frequently than the entire NEC — was also drafted by the GLU under McNicol and it significantly increased throughput. Under Emilie Oldknow, the establishment of an antisemitism working group on the NEC was also proposed. This came into fruition as Formby took over and was enthusiastically embraced by amongst others, two Corbyn supporters who happened to be Jewish, Jon Lansman and Rhea Wolfson — both knowledgeable about the growth and manifestations of Left-wing antisemitism. None of these were changes designed and developed under Formby, and none of them were even mentioned on Al Jazeera.
And while there were improvements under Formby, progress was also erratic. Due to major staff shortages, fewer Notice of Investigations were served in the last quarter of 2018 and than in the first quarter of 2019 before Formby took over. In Q4 of 2019 under Formby, the number of investigations opened plummeted – for the same reason little got done in Q2 2017 under McNicol: in both quarters there were general elections and for the GLU, as for all party officials, it was all hands on deck.
It was not really until well into 2019 that the GLU could be said to have got a grip of the complaints. Much credit for that, amongst others, was due to Laura Murray, who was moved from LOTO, and the diligent Harry Hayball, a founding member of Lansman’s original Momentum movement, one of the first to spot in 2017 that antisemitism was a serious and growing problem in Corbyn’s Labour. Hayball has now become a target of Halima Khan’s execration, a reminder of how the Left seems irredeemably condemned to splits. That may also help explain why Al Jazeera’s “investigation” has generated almost no mainstream curiosity, outside the angry echo chambers of online alternative media outlets.
In his trenchant criticisms, the Al Jazeera producer Sanders at least avoids personal and defamatory abuse but in what he acknowledges is his “obsessive interest” in Corbyn’s legacy, is nonetheless given to dogmatic proclamations. Speaking as someone with “a lot of admiration” for the hardline anti-Zionists in Jewish Voice for Labour, Sanders asserts with unyielding self-assurance that the “great blind spot” in Labour’s antisemitism crisis has been Zionism: “The great advantage of the conversation about antisemitism is while we’re talking about that, we’re not talking about Zionism.”
Really? Many might say the talk over Labour’s antisemitism crisis has been about little else.
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