LONDON — Britain’s opposition Labour Party apologized “unreservedly,” withdrew its accusations, and agreed to pay substantial damages to seven whistleblowers who sued the party for defamation over an anti-Semitism dispute.
The seven former employees, who were responsible for investigating complaints about misconduct within the party, including anti-Semitism, appeared on a BBC investigative program last year looking into whether Labour was anti-Semitic. They criticized the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, and sued the party when it issued a statement describing them as having “personal and political axes to grind.”
The former employees were also accused of trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader at the time.
Mark Henderson, representing Labour, told the High Court on Wednesday that the party acknowledged that “the claims about the claimants are untrue” and apologized to the group for defaming them and disseminating false allegations about them. “The Labour party is here today to publicly set the record straight, and to apologize to the claimants for the distress and embarrassment that it has caused them,” the party said in a statement read out in court.
Labour also agreed to pay damages to the journalist who made the television program, and apologized for alleging at the time that he “invented quotes” and “flouted journalistic ethics.”
The total amount of the damages wasn’t disclosed. But the Guardian reported that the settlement cost Labour some £600,000 ($760,000), with about £180,000 in damages for the eight individuals. “The settlement is believed to be an unprecedented case of a political party libeling a journalist and former employees,” it said.
Hours later, Corbyn complained about the party’s settlement, calling it disappointing. “The decision to settle these claims in this way is disappointing, and risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour party in recent years,” he said in a statement.
“The party’s decision to apologize today and make substantial payments to former staff who sued the party in relation to last year’s Panorama program is a political decision, not a legal one,” he asserted. “Our legal advice was that the party had a strong defense.”
The party’s new leader, Keir Starmer, has said he is committed to tackling anti-Semitism within his ranks. He is trying to steer the party back towards the center ground after the divisive tenure of Corbyn, his left-wing predecessor.
Corbyn also faced allegations that he had allowed anti-Semitism to fester in the party. He is a longtime supporter of the Palestinians and a critic of Israel.
The Guardian said Corbyn and his former communications chief, Seumas Milne, had “sought legal advice” over the wording of the apology, and that “allies of Corbyn believe the case could have been successfully contested.”
One of the whisteblowers, Louise Withers-Green, who worked in the party’s complaints department, told the Guardian that a chapter was being closed with the withdrawal of the libel case against her and the other former employees, but was “only a first step for the party in beginning to tackle anti-Semitism.”
“I had never expected the party to welcome the Panorama program with open arms. But I had been expecting them to take responsibility in the long-term for what was happening and truly want to take action. I never expected we would be called bad faith actors.” Politically, “the apology means a significant amount,” she said, and “personally, it’s certainly a turning point.”
“Anti-Semitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years,” Labour said in a statement Wednesday.
“If we are to restore the trust of the Jewish community, we must demonstrate a change of leadership.”