LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to defuse the crisis over anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour party has suffered a new setback with a fresh controversy erupting over the appointment of a top lawyer to oversee its disciplinary processes.
Gordon Nardell, who is Jewish, was recently announced as Labour’s new in-house counsel.
However, revelations of his alleged links to the party’s hard left and to activists embroiled in the anti-Semitism row have provoked further criticism of Labour’s handling of the issue.
Following the disclosures, a senior Jewish Labour MP has said she has “no faith” in the party’s processes to tackle anti-Semitism.
In a series of tweets, Luciana Berger called for the Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee, to review Nardell’s appointment.
The criticism came as Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, admitted that the party’s problems with anti-Semitism had worsened over the past year.
In a message to the Jewish Labour Movement, he said the problem was not “just with individual cases of anti-Semitism” but with “wider patterns of association.”
Watson said he was “ashamed” to see anti-Semitism “ignored, or minimized, or excused” by some Labour members.
Watson’s concerns were amplified by the departing chair of the party’s student wing.
Melantha Chittenden, who stepped down as national chair of Labour Students at the start of the month, told the BBC that the party leadership shared the blame for rising anti-Semitism on Britain’s campuses.
“It’s stopping Jewish students from being able to go to the campuses they want to or even engage in activities they want to on campus,” Chittenden said.
“That’s very problematic and I don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn wants that to be happening. He needs to challenge the problem head-on,” she said.
Labour’s decision to appoint an in-house legal counsel was the centerpiece of Corbyn’s response to the unprecedented demonstration against anti-Semitism in the party staged in Parliament Square by the Jewish community three months ago.
But Labour’s hopes that its fulfillment of the pledge might mark a turning point in the controversy which has dogged the party since Corbyn became leader in September 2015 appear to have been dashed.
Nardell’s professional credentials are not in doubt. He is a Queen’s Counsel, a title bestowed on senior lawyers in the UK who are recognized experts in a particular field of law.
His political associations and apparent links to members accused of anti-Semitism, critics charge, are more problematic.
On June 15, David Collier, a blogger and researcher, published a report on what he termed Labour’s “shameful” appointment of Nardell.
Collier noted that Nardell has been praised by Elleanne Green, the founder of the controversial Palestine Live Facebook group. In March it was revealed that Corbyn was an active member of the secret group, which contained Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites.
Green, who is suspended from the Labour party, posted in Palestine Live about Nardell’s appointment, calling him “A man I like and trust … also a non-Zionist Jew and a very brilliant mind.”
She also appeared to suggest that she had copied Nardell into a letter she had sent to the party protesting against its investigation of her.
But Collier also claims to have uncovered evidence of what he says is “troubling activity” online by Nardell himself.
In October last year, for instance, Nardell purportedly described as “anti-Labour nonsense” a motion being debated at a local party meeting which condemned the NEC’s failure to expel the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone. Livingstone had been suspended from the party after repeatedly claiming that Hitler supported Zionism.
“The problem with characterizing Ken’s [Livingstone’s] rather crass and ill-judged remarks as anti-Semitism is that it debases the coin — we no longer recognize real anti-Jewish racism when we see it, and we undermine the party’s ability to tackle it,” Nardell wrote on Facebook.
Nardell has suspended his Facebook account and all posts have been deleted. Collier has published a series of screenshots of past comments and “likes” made by the lawyer on Facebook.
A month previously, Collier suggests, Nardell “liked” a post advertising Jackie Walker’s one-woman show, The Lynching. Walker is suspended from the Labour party over allegations of anti-Semitism. Her show purports to tell of her “fight for justice” against “the anti-Semitic witch hunt [which] threatens Corbyn’s movement.”
Three days later, Nardell also appeared to “like” a post which criticized the Jewish Labour Movement and suggested that its “aim … remains to prevent Jewish members and others criticizing Israeli policies.”
Collier’s research also details how Nardell posted on Facebook last October that he had submitted a complaint to the BBC over an interview it had conducted with Sir Simon Schama, during the course of which the historian suggested that anti-Semitism could be found in the “darker edges of the Labour party.”
Nardell said the comment was “an extremely serious allegation which should itself have been called out.”
“I don’t think we can allow this sort of casual attack on the Opposition Party as a unique place on the political spectrum where anti-Jewish racism somehow flourishes or is tolerated, to stand,” he wrote.
Nardell’s Facebook friends, suggests Collier, also include individuals reportedly expelled from the Labour party over alleged anti-Semitism.
Given the findings of his investigation, writes Collier, “it is difficult to imagine ANY suspension or expulsion case that Gordon Nardell would have supported. In fact, from his activity online he clearly thinks the entire anti-Semitism scandal is a hoax.”
He clearly thinks the entire anti-Semitism scandal is a hoax
Nardell’s links to the Labour leadership have also been highlighted by those concerned about his appointment.
Earlier this year, he made an unsuccessful bid to be selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency, a key target for the party at the next general election.
Nardell was supported in that effort by John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and Corbyn’s most senior ally in the party.
At a meeting with Labour party members addressed by both men, Nardell was asked if he supported Corbyn’s views on Palestine, Syria and opposition to the Iraq war. He reportedly responded: “Yes, absolutely.”
According to the Jewish Chronicle, Nardell is also a former member of the hard-left Labour Representation Committee. The organization, of which McDonnell is the president, last month declared that Livingstone’s resignation from the party was a “major setback for the left.”
“It should be emphasized that Labour’s disciplinary process contains not a whiff of ‘due process’ or ‘natural justice,’” the group claimed.
Nardell was formerly a member of the editorial board of the magazine Labour Briefing alongside Walker.
Berger said that she raised concerns directly with the party over a month ago when she had heard rumors that Nardell was in line for the role.
“This individual had made worrying statements on social media and was identifiably connected to organizations and individuals that seek to deny the anti-Semitism problem. We were ignored,” she tweeted.
In a statement last week, the Board of Deputies said: “Before our meeting with Jeremy Corbyn we called for greater transparency and an independent ombudsman to give greater confidence about a disciplinary process which is widely seen to be politicized and give political allies of Mr. Corbyn an easy ride on serious matters like anti-Semitism.
“We are concerned by the widespread suggestion that Gordon Nardell’s affiliations and friendships would cast serious doubt on his ability to be independent. If the Labour Party is to prove itself capable of dispensing justice, it needs to give the confidence that disciplinary cases will be looked at in an objective way,” the group said.
Pro-Israel and moderate groups within the Labour party have also signaled their concerns.
A Labour Friends of Israel spokesperson said: “We are concerned that, given his apparent sympathies with Jeremy Corbyn’s world view, far-left associations and the endorsement he has received from those behind the appalling Palestine Live Facebook group, Mr. Nardell may not be best placed to oversee the effort to rid the Labour party of anti-Semitism.
“However, swift and tough action against the many anti-Semites who appear to have made Labour their home will help to dispel those concerns.”
Richard Angell, director of the centrist Progress group, labelled the choice of Nardell as “a joke.”
Referring to the new party general secretary, Jennie Formby, he argued, “Please do not tell me this is Jennie’s first big appointment and someone in whom she expects anyone to have any faith to deal with Labour’s anti-Semitism issues. What a joke. Enough is enough – Labour taking this issue seriously is long overdue.”
But Nardell’s supporters have attacked those who have raised concerns about his appointment.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of the Jewish Voice for Labour, which has consistently denied that the party has a problem with anti-Semitism, said on LBC radio that his critics “will only be happy if we have a QC in the pocket of the Israeli Embassy.”
Jonathan Goldstein, the chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, labeled this “nothing less than a classic anti-Semitic trope… one that Mr. Corbyn should have wasted no time in condemning.”
“If Mr. Corbyn had spent 10 percent of the time over the years with our community compared to the time he has spent with anti-Zionists we would not be in the situation we are in today,” Goldstein added, in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle published June 20.
“He has not engaged with our community. He has only engaged with the fringe, with people completely outside mainstream British Jewry,” he said.
Labour has reportedly described Nardell as “an eminent and highly respected QC” and argued that “he will continue to be bound by his professional standards and all of the obligations of the Bar Standards Board Code of Conduct.”