Labour civil war erupts as Tom Watson accuses leadership of 'smearing' ex-staff in anti-semitism row

Posted On: 
11th July 2019

Tom Watson has accused Labour's top officials of "smearing" former staff members who spoke out against anti-semitism in the party.

Tom Watson has gone to war with Jennie Formby.
Credit: 
PA Images

Labour's deputy leader said he had found it "truly shocking and distressing" to hear the ex-employees tell a Panorama documentary about their experiences of dealing with anti-Jewish racism by party members.

The programme claimed that Jeremy Corbyn's closest aides had interfered in anti-semitism cases - accusations fiercely denied by Labour.

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Party officials also said the allegations were being made by "disaffected" former staff members with a political axe to grind.

But in a letter to Jennie Formby, Labour's general secretary, Mr Watson said: "These young people, particularly the ex-staff who broke NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) to speak out, have been very brave to go before a camera and tell their stories.

"The way that they have been smeared, including by Labour spokespeople, is deplorable. Even if some in the party did not want to hear what they had to say, it is unacceptable to attempt to undermine their integrity and characters in this manner."

The Panorama documentary also revealed an email on one disciplinary case from Ms Formby to senior Labour figures, including Mr Corbyn, last year in which she said: "I’ve permanently deleted all trace of the email. Too many eyes all on my Labour address. Please use my Unite address."

But Mr Watson produced an email Ms Formby sent him earlier this year where she said: "I am extremely concerned by the wording I have highlighted in your email which appears to suggest either that you believe that I or any of our staff would consider destroying evidence, or that we are incapable of understanding the importance of co-operating appropriately with a public authority.

"Either suggestion is offensive and totally without any justification."

Meanwhile, Mr Watson also called on Ms Formby to publish the response Labour has made to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which has launched its own investigation into how the party deals with Jewish people.

So far, the general secretary has said she does not need to release the document to Mr Watson, Labour's Shadow Cabinet or the party's ruling national executive committee.

In his letter, Mr Watson said: "By refusing to share the submission with anyone else you have taken individual responsibility for it but this is a matter for collective not individual responsibility.

"The Shadow Cabinet and NEC need to know what you have sent to the EHRC in our party’s name, and we need to know urgently. Every member of these two bodies is bound by a moral and political responsibility to eradicate anti-semitism from the party and restore our standing with the Jewish community.

"I therefore insist you release the submission you sent to the EHRC on behalf of the Labour party. I can see no basis or authority for refusal.

"Given the concerns about secrecy and suppression of information raised in the Panorama I am disclosing this letter and the attached correspondence to the public.

"Only sunlight can disinfect Labour of anti-semitism now."

But a Labour source hit back at Mr Watson, saying: "Jennie Formby offered to meet with Tom Watson to provide him with the party’s response to the EHRC.

"This week Jennie Formby took time out of her chemotherapy treatment to update the Shadow Cabinet on this. Tom Watson was present but did not ask any questions on this. 

"No evidence has been destroyed.  During the brief period when one of (former general secretary) Iain McNicol’s advisers - who was politically opposed to Jennie Formby - was serving his notice he had access to Jennie’s inbox. He left shortly afterwards and Jennie Formby instructed staff to use her Labour email address, and set up an out of office on her Unite email.

"Labour email addresses are copied into the particular email chain so the emails are fully searchable through our internal subject request searches. Therefore nothing is destroyed or hidden. 

"These emails do not discuss any member’s data. This is therefore not relevant to the EHRC’s investigation as there was no data breach and the emails are not hidden from the EHRC."