UK Labour in turmoil over new anti-Semitism claims in BBC exposé

Party condemns documentary in which former staff members recount abuse they experienced; Jewish Labour Movement says it has received testimonies from dozens of others

UK Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech in central London, September 15, 2016.(AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis)
UK Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech in central London, September 15, 2016.(AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis)

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party was in turmoil Thursday after a television documentary renewed allegations that anti-Semitism is rife within its ranks.

In the BBC program, former staff members of the left-of-center party recounted being subjected to anti-Semitic abuse and alleged that senior party officials interfered in investigations of complaints.

Accusations of hostility toward Jews have riven Labour since left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinians, became party leader in 2015.

Corbyn’s opponents say criticism of Israel by some Labour members — especially those who joined after Corbyn took the helm — has strayed over the line into anti-Semitism and claim the party has not taken the issue seriously.

The party condemned the BBC documentary, broadcast Wednesday night, saying it contained “deliberate and malicious representations.” It alleged the former staffers who took part had “personal and political axes to grind.”

“We completely reject any claim that the Labour Party is anti-Semitic,” the party said in a statement. “The Labour Party at all levels is implacably opposed to anti-Semitism and is determined to root out this social cancer from our movement and society.”

UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his house in north London, June 12, 2019. (Isabel Infantes/AFP)

But many Labour lawmakers expressed dismay at the allegations.

Legislator Pat McFadden tweeted that the program was “powerful and shocking. Huge bravery shown by the young people who spoke out.”

Colleague Jess Phillips said on Twitter that the claims made in the program were “worse than I expected. The Labour party response tells me that they don’t care.”

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said anti-Semitism was “a sickness in our party” that had to be dealt with.

Watson told the BBC there was a feeling “that there’s almost a permissive culture that people can use anti-Jewish, racist language both in our meetings and to each other on social media. And we’ve failed to address that properly.”

The Jewish Labour Movement, the party’s Jewish affiliate, told Sky News on Thursday that 30 current and former staff members, as well as party officers, have reported to the group about their encounters with anti-Semitism, even though the Labour Party is “very keen on silencing those who wish to come forward.”

Screen capture from video of UK Jewish Labour Movement national secretary Paul Mason. (YouTube)

JLM, Sky reported, is gathering testimony to submit to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the British government’s watchdog on racism, which is investigating Corbyn for his handling of hate speech and hate crimes within the party.

Paul Mason, JLM national secretary, said the testimonies in the BBC report “confirm what we have suspected for a very long time.”

“What we are also asking at this stage is, given the incredible bravery of those who have already spoken out, that if there are party members, members of staff or members of the NEC who wish to come forward and make clear to the EHRC what is happening inside the Labour party — now is the time,” he said, referring to Labour’s National Executive Committee and the equality commission.

Sam Matthews, who was Labour’s head of disputes from 2016 to 2018, and who was featured in the BBC expose, told Sky News that the party is “institutionally anti-Semitic.”

“There are particular individuals who are responsible for that and ultimately the buck stops with Jeremy Corbyn,” he said. “I think that the thing that will be most impactful for the EHRC will be the scale of testimony that I expect them to receive.”

Jennie Formby at the 2016 Labour Party conference. (Wikimedia commons/Rwendland)

A Labour spokesman told Sky News “we stand in solidarity with Jewish people.”

“Since Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which anti-Semitism cases have been dealt with has increased more than four-fold,” the spokesman added.

However, Formby’s name cropped up in the BBC documentary, which published a series of leaked email chains revealing purported efforts by Communications Director Seumas Milne and Formby to protect party members accused of anti-Semitism.

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