The Guardian has published an article by Jeremy Corbyn’s former chief of staff, Karie Murphy, along with a separate piece by its chief political correspondent Jessica Elgot. Below is Murphy’s full article, which may differ from the paper’s edited version.
In the coming weeks, we can expect to hear more about the handling of antisemitism complaints in the Labour Party. That’s because the investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, launched last year, is due to be published.
Dealing with the EHRC, and getting input into the investigation process, has not always been easy. So, as someone who was at the centre of dealing with these issues, in parliament and Labour HQ, I want to set the record straight.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, antisemites were removed from the Labour Party more quickly, transparently and effectively than ever before.
As his former chief of staff, I’m proud of that record. It wasn’t easy to deliver – not because Jeremy and our team weren’t absolutely committed to protecting Jewish members and communities. Far from it. Every action we took was aimed at creating a process that got antisemites out of the Labour Party swiftly and fairly.
In February 2016, I joined Corbyn’s office and soon afterwards became his chief of staff. Frankly, the party machine was dysfunctional. The open civil war against the new leadership is well documented.
“The individual complaints system was a mess, with the unit meant to oversee it operating more often as a factional weapon than anything approaching a fair and rigorous process.”
But there was a deeper problem, at least as it related to proper processes for complaints and discrimination: there weren’t any.
Local parties often languished in suspended animation, banned from meeting or holding votes for years on end, without any way to restart members’ democracy. What common factor did these local parties usually have? Large minority ethnic memberships.
The individual complaints system was a mess, with the unit meant to oversee it operating more often as a factional weapon than anything approaching a fair and rigorous process.
This ugly backdrop informed the first flare-up of the antisemitism controversy in the Labour Party as a major media story. That took place in April 2016, when old Facebook comments by the Labour MP Naz Shah and pro-Corbyn activist Jackie Walker surfaced, along with Ken Livingstone’s thoroughly offensive attempted defence of Shah’s former online activity. Action was taken immediately and Naz worked hard to rebuild relations with the Jewish community.
“From an audit of over 300 antisemitism complaints received by the party [before Jennie Formby became general secretary], only 34 had been investigated, and of them only 10 were suspended at the time.”
Jeremy made strong public statements condemning antisemitism and demanded action be taken in the party. He also commissioned a report from the leading human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti. The Board of Deputies of British Jews called for her recommendations to be implemented in a “rigorous and swift” manner.
The figures are stark. From an audit of over 300 antisemitism complaints received by the party from November 2016 to February 2018, only 34 had been investigated, and of them only 10 were suspended at the time.
This shocking failure of basic processes only began to be fully uncovered after Jennie Formby became General Secretary in March 2018.
“whenever we were asked for our view, we almost always suggested stronger and swifter action.”
In 2019, I felt we were getting on top of the process problems in the party. The results are clear. In 2017, 28 cases brought to the National Executive Committee led to just one expulsion, while in 2019 274 cases led to 45, a more than four-fold increase in expulsions per case. We had a weekly, cross-departmental antisemitism working group of party officials, forcing through the necessary changes to the system.
We didn’t deal with individual cases at the leadership level – and nor should we have done – but we did act to improve the overall process.
Apart from one brief period in early 2018 between Iain McNicol leaving and Jennie Formby taking over, we were only consulted on cases involving MPs or other elected leaders, as has always been the case in the Labour Party with all types of complaints. And whenever we were asked for our view, we almost always suggested stronger and swifter action.
“there has been an extremely successful campaign to obscure the facts.”
Throughout the whole period, Jeremy asked me as his chief of staff to improve the process, get antisemites out of our party and begin to rebuild trust with Jewish communities. Jeremy is an anti-racist in every cell in his body and he wanted robust action following due process.
Many readers will find this all surprising given the dominant media narrative about antisemitism in the Labour Party, but it is the truth. While many victims of antisemitism and their allies rightly demanded action from the party, there has been an extremely successful campaign to obscure the facts. That was primarily driven by political opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist, internationalist politics.
Last summer’s BBC Panorama programme about Labour and antisemitism, based on testimonies from some of those responsible for the system that only investigated 10% of antisemitism complaints from November 2016 to February 2018, claimed that there was political meddling from Corbyn’s team to protect antisemites. There wasn’t.
Between McNicol leaving and Jennie Formby taking over as general secretary, those running the governance and legal unit began asking Corbyn’s team for their views on individual cases. Not only did we not ask for this oversight of individual cases, I thought it was a factional trap and I put a stop to it.
“speaking out for the first time”
I’m not speaking out for the first time to run away from the fact that antisemitism reared its head among a small minority in the Labour Party. It did. It was wrong and the party as a whole was slow to deal with it effectively. That failure, combined with a relentless and highly politicised media campaign had a serious impact: it hurt Jewish people and disturbed and confused many in our movement.
Could more have been done earlier? Yes, of course. But what was done unquestionably made it easier and swifter to remove antisemites from the Party.
I hope Keir Starmer and his team builds on the hugely improved system we instituted and uses the space afforded to him by the dialing down of the politicised media campaign on this issue to rebuild relations and trust with Jewish communities. It deeply saddens me that we were unable to do so. But it wasn’t for want of trying, let alone any toleration for antisemitism.
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