Holocaust denial at Labour party meetings. Jewish members being called “dirty Zionists”, or worse. Party staffers being made to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements to stop them speaking out against the lack of action against the culprits. Interventions by Jeremy Corbyn’s office, and the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby, to change the composition of disciplinary panels, apparently to thwart them from expelling those found to have been anti-semitic. The appointment of Thomas Gardiner as head of the party’s disputes unit, who downgraded sanctions against several anti-semites from expulsions to suspension, or from suspensions to warnings.
Many of the revelations in last night’s Panorama programme about anti-semitism in Labour are very serious indeed. Mike Creighton, the party’s former head of disputes, spoke eloquently about the time that Seamus Milne laughed at him for suggesting a tough line on the most serious cases on anti-semitism, and that Corbyn should make a prominent speech on the subject. Several former officials said that they were so disheartened by the party’s unwillingness to combat anti-semitism that some had been signed off work sick, or had had breakdowns. One, Sam Matthews, even said he had contemplated suicide by throwing himself off the roof terrace outside Formby’s office at Labour HQ on Victoria Street.
The programme told how another young Labour staffer, Ben Westerman, was dispatched to Liverpool Riverside – a constituency whose Labour MP, Louise Ellman, is Jewish and had encountered mounting anti-semitism – only to encounter anti-semitism himself, with one party member asking whether he came “from Israel”. The term “Zionist” has been ‘weaponised’ and at too many CLPs unpalatable anti-semitism has become normal, or even routine.
The party’s petulant response to the programme – dismissing the allegations as “offensive nonsense” from “disaffected former officials”– is very foolish, and will do nothing to dampen the crisis down. Almost all of Labour’s actions since the crisis began in 2016 – from the discredited Shami Chakrabarti report, which exculpated Corbyn and others by downplaying the significance of their sharing of platforms with known anti-semites and Islamist hate preachers like Raed Salah, to Corbyn’s decision to meet with a wacky fringe group, Jewdas, before he met with the British Board of Deputies and other mainstream Jewish organisations – have been spectacularly ill-judged.
Double standards are clearly at work. While Alistair Campbell is expelled immediately from Labour for having admitted (after the polls had closed) that he had voted Lib Dem at the recent European elections, it takes many weeks or even months for those who peddle serious anti-semitism to be censured at all. Conversely, another trend is to spin out disciplinary investigations into anti-Corbyn MPs for as long as possible until they either resign or switch party (step forward John Woodcock, the Barrow MP who resigned the Labour whip because of “politically motivated” accusations of sexual harassment, and who has finally joined the newly-rebranded The Independents group). Labour’s complaints unit is clearly overwhelmed by anti-semitism cases, under-resourced and suffering frequent changes of personnel. It has proved so inept that many within the party itself are now suggesting that complaints should be handled by an independent body.
As Nick Lowles of the anti-racist group ‘Hope not Hate’ has rightly said, “[The] Panorama programme was depressing and gut-wrenching… It showed that an appalling lack of understanding of the hurt, and fear, felt by Jewish party members and the wider Jewish community.” Indeed, many of the talking heads on the programmes – Jewish party members who talked candidly about the anti-semitic abuse they have received – went unnamed, and it’s easy to see why. Anyone who criticises the party leadership, and its outriders, on social media these days is immediately subjected to a mountain of abuse (as a gentile I have been subjected to it myself, and if I was Jewish I am sure it would have been a lot nastier).
But the programme also had several faults. Some of its examples of supposed anti-semitism – such as Corbyn’s speculation on Iranian state TV back in 2012 that Egyptian border guards may have been killed by the Israeli military rather than by Islamist terrorists – fell flat (“So what?” was probably most viewers’ reaction). Its presenter John Ware repeatedly asked the Labour frontbencher Andrew Gwynne whether 15 expulsions for anti-semitism since Corbyn took over was adequate. Ware suggested that this arbitrary figure was somehow too low and showed that Labour does not take anti-semitism seriously enough. But with many investigations ongoing, it’s unclear what significance the figure has: if there had been a higher number of expulsions, this would presumably be cited as further evidence that the problem of anti-semitism is out of control.
Panorama also fell into the familiar trap of paying too much attention to the highest profile subjects of anti-semitism complaints: Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker, and Derby North MP Chris Williamson. It is not clear how any of these people have been actively anti-semitic rather than just misguided, misinformed and insensitive. The real culprits are in fact the unhinged cranks that all political parties attract from time to time, many of them cowards who troll anonymously in cyberspace. Livingstone, Walker and Williamson may have given these genuine anti-semites political cover by talking of a “witch hunt” against innocent people wrongly accused of anti-semitism. But it’s difficult to argue that Labour has been too lenient against them: Livingstone chose to resign from the party before he was expelled, Walker has been expelled, and Williamson has recently had his suspension reinstated.
The programme was also very poor at putting the current crisis in a historical context. Clearly a one-hour, one-off documentary about a contemporary problem could not cover the full history of Labour’s disciplinary processes, but it was wrong to imply that until Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 they were a model of fairness and due process.
To be fair to Labour under the leadership of Blair, Brown and Miliband, few attempts were made to deselect left-wing MPs like Corbyn before 2015: instead they were marginalised and (with a few honourable exceptions such as Michael Meacher and Chris Mullin) denied ministerial office. But Labour could be just as petty as it is now about those who dare to confess they have voted for another party (in May 2015, still on Ed Miliband’s watch, one party member in Scotland was even summarily expelled for having allegedly tweeted in favour of the SNP, hardly a good way to win back hearts and minds after a catastrophic defeat north of the border). And while there may have been few anti-semitism complaints to deal with, another plague was at large. Party HQ was always busy with local government “compliance issues”: not bottom-up complaints from ordinary Labour members, but top-down complaints from Labour Town Hall bosses about fellow councillors overstepping the mark.
My own experience, as a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich for 16 years until 2014, showed how the party machine was often incompetent and inept, and ultimately helped to cover up, rather than confront, rampant bullying at my council. The culture of blame, recrimination and distrust at Labour HQ started long before Corbyn became leader.
I’ll leave aside the incompetence (leaflets taking months to be printed, legal advice on how not to libel political opponents being promised but never obtained), for now. I will concentrate instead on a serious sequence of events from 2009 onwards. Greenwich Council’s then leader, Chris Roberts, had been elected as a young technocrat in 2000 but by 2009 something was going badly wrong with his administration. The council’s Labour group – supposedly the sovereign decision-making body – was frequently bypassed, or asked to rubber-stamp decisions that had already been made elsewhere. Roberts started regularly shouting aggressively at fellow councillors, council staff and even members of the public, both in public and private. Abusive voice-mail messages were frequent. But whenever anyone complained to Roberts’ ‘enforcer’ – the council’s chief whip Ray Walker (no relation to Jackie Walker) – about this behaviour they were stonewalled, or even accused of “bringing the party into disrepute”.
One young female councillor was pressured – via an unannounced home visit by several male councillors – to abandon an enquiry by the scrutiny committee she chaired. Another colleague received an official “warning” after raising mild concerns about council policy at an internal party meeting – so keen to gag Labour councillors was the leadership in Greenwich that even speaking one’s mind within the party was now discouraged. Later, an ‘email protocol’ was circulated outlawing councillors from debating policy issues by email: clearly controlling the agendas of meetings was not enough.
When I started raising concerns in 2009 about large council-owned buildings in my ward being emptied of tenants, held empty for months on end, being squatted and then auctioned off at less than their real value, I naively expected that fellow Labour councillors would share my concerns that assets were being managed so poorly at a time of acute housing need. But instead Ray Walker, at Robert’s instigation, started his own investigation, not into the concerns I had raised, but into me.
Walker tried to obtain private correspondence between me and council staff without my knowledge. When I asked him to tell me precisely what I was accused of doing wrong, he shouted at me and walked off, and on another occasion shouted that I was being “uncomradely” before hanging up on me on the telephone.
Eventually, after more than a year of tortuous investigation, Walker ‘concluded’ that by raising concerns about value for money confidentially with council officers and the District Auditor I had somehow “issued publications critical of the party” and sent me an official “warning” to shut up or else.
After I had documented the way I had been treated and produced a report recommending ways to learn lessons and stop this sort of bullying, I once bumped into Roberts and asked him what progress had been made in considering my recommendations. But rather than accept this olive branch he shouted at me in the street in front of my seven-year-old daughter, bellowing over his shoulder as he walked off that I was somehow bullying him.
Worse was to follow. The local press somehow got hold of a particularly unpleasant voicemail message in which Roberts had warned a cabinet colleague, John Fahy, to “get it into his thick fucking skull” that Roberts had the power to fire him if he did not toe the line. Rather than offer solidarity to Fahy, Walker started an aggressive leak enquiry and warned him not to contact the press ever again.
By 2012 a number of dossiers on all these incidents in Greenwich, and others, had been sent to a number of senior officials at Labour HQ: Alan Olive (then head of London Region), Patrick Heneghan (head of Local Government and Election Organisation) and Declan McHugh (who had the grandiose title of ‘Director, Strategic Planning & Constitutional Affairs’).
I never encountered Mike Creighton, the party’s former head of disputes, but I did once speak to the phone to Kat Buckingham (a former official who told Panorama about how Ken Livingstone once signed at Labour HQ that he was “going to the torture chamber” ahead of being grilled by her about anti-semitism). While I’ve no reason to doubt that Buckingham acted in good faith in my case, it soon became clear that none of the more senior officials who were alerted to problems in Greenwich wanted to know. I and other whistleblowers were blithely told that Greenwich’s chief whip had acted correctly by “warning” us to shut up and failing to confront Roberts’s behaviour, and officials even urged us to raise further concerns with Walker himself.
The truth slowly dawned that Walker – whose day job was keeping the computers running at Labour HQ, where he was a union shop steward – was untouchable, and no-one at the party wanted to take on the politically awkward task of confronting the culture of bullying that was festering on his watch in Greenwich. The shadowy old-right ‘Labour First’ organisation, which Walker and Roberts were close to, was ascendant at Labour HQ at the time and simply did not want to hear about misconduct by its own. Despite all the rhetoric on Labour First’s website about “more power for local councillors”, who “deserve a strong voice within our party”, in reality councillors who rocked the boat were silenced.
When I and others escalated the matter to the party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, he sat on his hands, and casually dismissed legal advice that I had obtained, which showed that the party’s actions in Greenwich were clearly unlawful. McNicol once came to a party meeting in Greenwich, and after several people confronted him about the problem of bullying at the council he promised to meet with us privately. But he then backtracked and refused to meet any complainants. He even refused to meet with my then-MP, Nick Raynsford, who naturally wanted to discuss his own concerns about what was going on in his borough. McNicol told everyone that the matter had already been exhaustively discussed – an odd response, seeing as all his officials had always refused to meet with me and the other complainants. Apart from Buckingham, I didn’t even speak to any of them by telephone: my calls went unreturned.
Tragically, it was only in December 2013 – after the BBC reported allegations that Roberts had once angrily thrown a bunch of keys at a Town Hall cleaner, who soon left her job and later died – that the party finally took action. Chris Roberts was quietly persuaded to stand down as Leader in 2014 (he later decided to not seek re-election to the council either). Roberts’s closest allies – deputy leader Peter Brooks, and Walker – were ousted in the reshuffle that followed that year’s elections, at which I had also stepped down as a councillor. By then I had had enough of the toll that the toxic culture of Greenwich Council was having on my family, and on my health.
The council’s chief executive Mary Ney – widely seen as a Roberts toady who had once refused a journalist’s FOI request to see my internal report about bullying at the council – soon retired, and is now working with Roberts at a lobbying outfit, Cratus. I don’t envy those who now work with them. Although Roberts has never received any of the public honours normally bestowed on long-serving council leaders, Ney has since been made a Dame for her subsequent role as a commissioner at scandal-prone Rotherham Council, and McNicol was made a life peer after being ousted as general secretary by Corbyn in 2018. But none of those who had raised concerns about the toxic culture of bullying in Greenwich for several years prior to 2013 ever received a word of thanks, or an apology for having been ignored for so long. I only received a grudging apology from McNicol a few years later, after I asked him why he kept on sending me automated emails demanding financial donations and told him to desist.
All the senior Labour officials who ignored the scandal of bullying in Greenwich in the early 2010s – Olive, Heneghan, McHugh, and McNicol – have tweeted, or retweeted, messages in the last 24 hours about the Panorama programme, deploring its revelations and expressing sympathy for the whistleblowers. Labour First has tweeted “We cannot allow the bravery of ordinary Jewish members and former Party staff who spoke out be in vain [sic]… We have to organise against the anti-Semites and those who enable them by dismissing people’s real concerns…The horrific situation outlined in Panorama didn’t happen by accident…. The anti-semitism described in Panorama should shame us all, but especially those that have spent today trying to play down and rubbish these concerns.”
Given McNicol’s complete inaction on bullying in Greenwich when he was the party’s general secretary, it was galling to see him wring his hands on last night’s Panorama about his successor Jennie Formby’s inaction on anti-semitism now. McNicol piously announced that it would have been unthinkable in his day for panels of the National Constitutional Committee (which has the final say on expulsions) to be stitched up, but neglected to say that elections to such committees, if not their panels, have always been stitched up as much as possible by the party leadership.
McNicol told John Ware that emails leaked to the programme “should ring alarm bells”. His hypocrisy will raise many hackles in Greenwich, and elsewhere: when several Labour councillors and seasoned party members raised the alarm about pervasive bullying there in 2010-13, he stuck his fingers in his ears. “The General Secretary does not listen,” was one of the charges laid at Jennie Formby’s door in last night’s programme. But when he was General Secretary McNicol did not just refuse to listen. He refused to hear.
In Iain McNicol’s day, no able party official like Ben Westerman was ever dispatched to Greenwich to listen to me and other party members. Instead we were simply told to go away and shut up.
Although I did come across racism of other kinds in Greenwich, I never came across anti-semitism there. One cultural problem was, thankfully, absent: few in Greenwich were obsessed with Israel-Palestine or conspiracy theories about Zionists, and none of my Jewish friends in Greenwich ever spoke of anti-semitic abuse. The way that I and other whistleblowers in Greenwich were treated a decade or so ago is clearly not equivalent to the deplorable anti-semitism that too many Jewish members suffer today. But there was the same culture of control-freakery, impunity and cronyism at Labour HQ then as there is now. I think it is best for Iain McNicol and certain other former Labour officials to think twice before taking the moral high ground. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.