Uncivil War

This senseless lawsuit could bankrupt the Labour party and let the Tories win again.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th February 2023.

You might imagine that nothing could prevent a Labour victory at the next election. The Conservatives could scarcely have done more to alienate voters and destroy public trust. Everyone knows that in this ridiculous first-past-the-post system, the only party in a position to replace them is Labour. Many will vote accordingly.

But there is one major obstacle: the Labour party. It seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. How? By pursuing a civil lawsuit alleging breach of contract against five close associates of Jeremy Corbyn, whom it accuses of leaking a highly sensitive report.

The report, 860 pages long, was written to be submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which was conducting an inquiry into allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party. It included WhatsApp messages between staff members in Labour headquarters, in some cases containing grotesquely sexist and racist comments. It alleged sabotage by a faction in Labour party HQ opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, and claimed that this obstructionism prevented complaints from being swiftly addressed. Following legal advice, the report was not submitted to the EHRC. It was leaked to the press in April 2020.

I think the case against the five alleged leakers, among whom is Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s former executive director of strategy and communications – and before that a Guardian columnist and comment editor – looks very weak. The Information Commissioner’s Office investigated three of them and decided there was “insufficient evidence” to prosecute. Nor were external investigators hired by the Labour party able to identify the leakers. Sources told the BBC thatup to 15 other people may have had access to the report.

The impact of pursuing this case could be massive. It is likely to come to court early next year, coinciding with an election campaign. The horrendous content of some of the messages leaked in the files, and the civil war within the party that the suit may reignite, could scarcely be greater gifts to the Conservatives. If the Labour party loses, it could be liable for an estimated £3-4m in costs – a figure Labour denies – perhaps sufficient to bankrupt the party.

The leaked report contains names and personal details that were not redacted, breaching confidentiality. But it also provides useful insights into Labour party operations during the Corbyn years. It reveals how an utter collapse in effective management was caused by factional warfare and rendered the party almost incapable of taking decisive action. Plenty of denialists, often using the hashtag #ItWasAScam, have sought to use the report to dismiss the issue of antisemitism in the party. It offers them no such comfort. Right at the start, the report notes: “This report thoroughly disproves any suggestion that antisemitism is not a problem in the party, or that it is all a ‘smear’ or a ‘witch-hunt’.” As I know to my cost, acknowledging the reality of antisemitism in Labour triggers a storm of abuse. But denying it is stupid and disgraceful.

The leak has led to several important outcomes. One of them is the Forde report, commissioned by Labour to investigate the veracity of the report’s allegations and the party’s culture and practices. It found that while both sides treated antisemitism “as a factional weapon”, and while there were “structural problems” with the disciplinary system that made it unfit for purpose, there was not clear and convincing evidence of a systematic attempt by the leadership to undermine disciplinary action. It concluded that the suspension of existing members and the exclusion of applicants by the Labour party’s governance and legal unit – described as “Trot hunting” in the WhatsApp messages – was “factionally slanted” by removing ballots from people “who would otherwise have voted for Jeremy Corbyn”. This embedded the “extremely damaging” conviction among parts of the membership that the disciplinary system was rigged against them. The dysfunction these problems caused was exacerbated by the utter chaos within the Corbyn team.

While Labour pursues its case against the alleged leakers, it has done little to act upon the Forde report’s recommendations, to ensure that there can be no repetition of the misogyny, racism and factional discrimination revealed by the leaked report. In other words, Keir Starmer’s party is pursuing, beyond all apparent reason, the alleged leakers, but not the issues the leak exposed.

Another outcome of the leak is a series on Al Jazeera called The Labour Files. Al Jazeera has had its own antisemitism scandals, including a video denying the Holocaust. Nevertheless, The Labour Files produced strong evidence that some of the claims made about Corbyn and his team in the media were wrong.

Perhaps the most decisive blow to Corbyn’s leadership was the BBC Panorama programme Is Labour Antisemitic? It interviewed a former Labour official who, it claimed, was confronted in a disciplinary hearing “by the very antisemitism he’d been investigating”. He alleged that the woman he was questioning asked him: “Where are you from?… Are you from Israel?” But the two women in the meeting, both of whom are Jewish, had recorded the conversation with his permission. Backed by their recording, whose veracity no one seems to have disputed, they say it shows that she said something entirely different: “What branch are you in?” – meaning what branch of the party. And that when he told her he didn’t think that was relevant, she said simply: “Oh, OK.”

Another Panorama contributor was a Labour party member called Izzy Lenga. Her edited interview stated the following. “I joined the Labour party in 2015. The antisemitic abuse I received was what I was subjected to every single day. Telling me Hitler was right, telling me Hitler did not go far enough.” In December 2022, after this account was challenged by The Labour Files, the BBC published a correction. It shows that Lenga actually said: “When I was a student … being quite a high-profile Jewish woman student, I was subjected to quite a lot of like nasty vitriol and abuse … The antisemitic abuse I received … was what I was subjected to every single day … Predictably a lot of it came from the far right … neo-Nazi abuse … telling me Hitler was right, telling me Hitler did not go far enough.” She said she had received similar abuse “from the far left”.

She then said: “In Labour party meetings … we’ve seen people engage in Holocaust denial … and that’s terrifying for Jewish members … It absolutely breaks my heart to say but I do not think the Labour party is a safe space for Jewish people any more.”So her view of the party was clear, but what she said had not been accurately reported throughout.

Why, when Labour needs to focus all its fire on the Tories, to rebuild trust and present a united front to the electorate, is it exposing its greatest vulnerability once more? When I asked its press office, I was told that the party “is confident of the case it has presented to the court”. But it refused to answer my questions about the suit’s justification or cost, or the political damage it may inflict.

I suspect there is a performative aspect to this lawsuit: “Look how decisively we reject the Corbyn era!” And perhaps it has developed a momentum of its own – so much money has already been spent that it is hard to pull out. But its costs can only escalate, while its chances of success seem only to diminish. Once again, factional warfare seems to take precedence over winning an election.