In the run-up to Wednesday night’s Panorama on Labour anti-Semitism, one whistleblower received a lawyer’s letter, the party demanded the BBC director-general ‘suspend and reconsider the planned broadcast’, and Momentum did a pre-emptive hit job on presenter John Ware. Now we know why. Panorama: Is Labour Anti-Semitic? levelled serious charges, chief amongst them that senior figures close to Jeremy Corbyn, including his spin doctor Seumas Milne and Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby, interfered in the disciplinary process.
Ware interviewed more than 20 Labour officials for the documentary. Former head of disputes for the party, Sam Matthews, said there was now ‘a culture in the Labour Party that makes anti-Semites feel it is their political home’. He accused Milne of emailing officials to warn against ‘muddling up political disputes with racism’ and to urge a review into the process, something Matthews interpreted as ‘an instruction’.
Mike Creighton, another ex-head of disputes, recounted that Milne asked him how to deal with anti-Semitism. Creighton recommended speeding up disciplinary cases against the worst offenders and suggested Corbyn give a speech saying Israel had a right to exist, at which point, Creighton claims, Milne laughed at him. Kat Buckingham, once the party’s chief investigator, described Shami Chakrabarti‘s 2016 report into anti-Semitism, widely dismissed as a whitewash, as ‘so poorly researched’, ‘pitiful’ and ‘impossibly disappointing’.
Yet more damning testimony came from ex-investigators Dan Hogan and Louise Withers Green. Hogan claimed that in some cases Formby pushed for anti-Semites to be let off with a slap on the wrist. Withers Green recalled the response to now-expelled member Jackie Walker who had said, among other things, that Jews were ‘chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade’. Walker, she said, ‘showed absolutely no contrition or remorse’. Yet, Ware went on to allege, Formby sent an email (cc’d to Corbyn’s private email address) pledging to ‘challenge’ the tribunal panel that would hear Walker’s case. She added: ‘I’ve permanently deleted all trace of this email. Too many eyes on my Labour address.’
Lord McNicol, Formby’s predecessor, told the programme that this ‘should ring alarm bells across the party… to try to interfere in the NEC politically is just wrong’. It also undermines repeated claims that the disciplinary process operates independently of the Labour leadership. The programme further reported that a ‘secret instruction’ was given at one point to transfer anti-Semitism files from party HQ to the leader’s office and that a Corbynista apparatchik given ‘political oversight’ of anti-Semitism complaints rejected the disputes team’s recommendation to suspend a member who had disseminated an image of a Jewish alien parasite smothering the Statue of Liberty.
In one of the most difficult to watch moments, Ware further alleged that when Ken Livingstone accused Zionists of collaborating with the Nazis, one staffer in Corbyn’s office ‘grinned’ at the comments while another suggested a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ was out to get the former London mayor suspended. The programme was interspersed by statements from Labour disputing that certain conversations had taken place and emphasising that the whistleblowers were either ‘disaffected’ or had opposed Corbyn from the start. It rejected any suggestion that Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite.
The programme painted a picture for the general viewer of just how routine and horrific anti-Semitism has become in the Labour party. Izzy Lenga, the international officer of the Jewish Labour Movement, said she’d been subjected to anti-Semitism ‘every single day’, including being told ‘Hitler didn’t go far enough’ and witnessing Holocaust denial in Labour meetings. Another activist, who voted for Corbyn as leader, told Panorama: ‘They might not call me a “dirty Jew” but they’ll call me a “dirty Zionist”, with pride.’
One Jewish interviewee said: ‘We are very frightened of what Corbyn might do because we have seen these behaviours before.’ Another admitted: ‘We feel like we don’t belong here and we have to do far more than anybody else to prove that we do.’ The same member said he’d been called ‘a fucking Jew’ and ‘a Jewish pig’.
MP Louise Ellman spoke about anti-Semitism in her Liverpool Riverside constituency, where one activist had said ‘Zionists are targets and deserve to feel uncomfortable’ while another declared: ‘Every Jew is a Zio-fascist’. Party investigations officer Ben Westerman was sent to Liverpool to assess the problem. At the end of one interview, a party member confronted Westerman, who is Jewish, and demanded: ‘Where are you from?… Are you from Israel?’
The pressure took its toll on the staff. Withers Green was diagnosed with depression and anxiety; Buckingham had a breakdown; Matthews contemplated suicide. Another staffer felt her work had meant nothing when she learned that, as of the Spring, just 15 members had been expelled for anti-Semitism. She and the rest of her former co-workers exuded utter dejection, the ideal mood for watching the programme because, in the end, very little will come of it. Labour’s anti-Semites will continue to be anti-Semitic and their enablers will continue to expect credit for the occasional strongly-worded tweet in rebuke.
What secures Jeremy Corbyn in post is not the anti-Semites in the grassroots but his MPs, who even now are preparing to campaign to put him in Downing Street if the new Prime Minister calls an election. Faced with a choice between the Jews and their latest miserable persecutors, Labour MPs have not only chosen to back the latter — they’ve chosen to be the latter. They are not merely feckless bystanders, they are knowing accomplices. They are this century’s guilty men and women and Panorama viewers glimpsed the horrors in which they are complicit.