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

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. 

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? 

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» Were Labour’s antisemitism failures really Corbyn’s fault? | Peter Oborne Justin Schlosberg Richard Sanders | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/06/26/were-labours-antisemitism-failures-really-corbyns-fault-3/ | 2022-06-26T17:24:06+00:00
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