Forde Report Summary (Pt6): (Allegation 2) Factionalism undermined complaints handling
Allegation 2: Factionalism adversely impacted the handling of anti-Semitism complaints during this time.
Labour HQ staff assert that LOTO had interfered with and undermined their handling of anti-Semitism complaints. This was also the theme of the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ which included interviews with some HQ staff. This assertion was also backed up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Incidentally, it’s not surprising that the EHRC would back this assertion as they are actually a government funded body and the Chair of the EHRC, David Isaac, is a wealthy city lawyer whose firm works for the Tory government.
Unlike the EHRC, Forde acknowledges that LOTO would have some “legitimate political necessity” in being kept informed of developments. However, Forde finds that, at least in a limited number of cases, that concerned Corbyn allies, a few interventions went beyond legitimate necessity. Forde then appears to dismiss the claim “amongst some on the left” that the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had been exaggerated to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. His reasoning for this assessment is that he saw “no evidence that claims of anti-Semitism were fabricated by complainants or improperly pursued by the complaints team.”
Frankly, I find it extremely difficult to believe that an experienced QC like Martin Forde, is unable to comprehend the nuance of the claim being made by those on the left of the party, most of whom, to my knowledge, are not actually questioning the veracity of each case but are, instead, questioning the veracity of the claim that the Labour Party, as a whole, has an anti-Semitism ‘problem’ because that would imply, statistically speaking, that the Labour Party has more incidents of anti-Semitism as a percentage of its membership than any other political party or, proportionally, more cases than may be found in broader society. Forde does at least acknowledge that “many of the claims about anti-Semitism that were made public did not, in fact, concern members of the party.” That said, Forde emphatically rejects the claim by some GLU staff that they were “under political pressure… not to find certain individuals guilty of anti-Semitism” and adds that the inquiry found no “clear and convincing documentary evidence” of this. In fact, according to Forde, in Spring 2018, HQ staff refused to proceed with investigations without LOTO input and evidence shows that “LOTO staff responded to the requests, for the most part, reasonably and in good faith” but it was these responses, requested by GLU staff, that then somehow got twisted into media reports of LOTO staff aggressively imposing themselves on the process.
According to Forde, there were “structural problems with the party’s disciplinary system which meant it was not fit for purpose or able to cope with the increase of complaints which followed the post-2015 surge in membership [with membership rising from 190,000 in May 2015 to over 500,000 in July 2016]” and that it is “clear that the factional culture in which these structural problems arose, seriously exacerbated those issues.” Forde goes on to report that the system for logging and tracking complaints was inadequate which made it difficult to check on the progress of a complaint or even to see how many cases were active at a given time. Some effort was made to remedy this by the “Complaints Centre” between 2017-2018, however, GLU staffing levels did not increase until 2018 so, prior to that, getting around to processing and investigating complaints took a long time, which also delayed cases being referred to the NEC & NCC. Additionally, as the NEC disputes panel only met 4 times a year, this created a bottle neck. Forde notes that the NEC disputes panel wasn’t immune to factionalism either so cases would take some time to process. Smaller sub-panels (sitting with an independent legal advisor) were introduced to deal with sexual misconduct cases in 2017. They worked well so the new format was adopted to handle anti-Semitism cases in 2019. There was a similar bottleneck when cases were referred to the NCC as there were initially only 11 NCC members so trying to get enough of them to convene was very difficult. In 2019, the party issued new guidelines and expanded the NCC panel to 25, which made it a lot easier to convene panels and get through cases.
Forde reports, at least at the start, that GLU staff had no written guidelines or proper framework for decision making when it came to whether or not to investigate a complaint or refer it to the NEC, or whether to suspend someone while an investigation was underway. Similarly, the NEC had no guidance on when to take action, when to give a written warning or when to refer a case to the NCC and the NCC had no guidance on when they should sanction someone. This, says Forde, “led to inconsistent decision-making at every stage.” Forde adds that complaints handling at CLP and Regional levels were also inconsistent due to lack of clarity and respondents often complained that staff were bias, so, in 2019, the decision was taken for all cases to be referred directly to the GLU. Forde does however make it clear that “structural problems” within the disciplinary system didn’t exclusively impact anti-Semitism complaints.
Forde then moves on to the underlying question of whether structural problems were further “exacerbated by individual members of staff from either faction?” The accusation from the right has been that LOTO senior staff and left supporters in the PLP and NEC were pressuring the GLU complaints team to drop or delay complaints against left wing members or to impose lesser sanctions and, as Forde points out, this argument was “made repeatedly in the media.” Some ‘witnesses’ on the right also suggested that LOTO, and their supporters on the NEC, showed hostile resistance to any “attempts to improve the disciplinary system under Iain McNicol,” which, to Forde, seems an odd accusation, given that there was a right wing majority on the NEC. In contrast, witnesses on the left were adamant that problems were exacerbated by the inaction of GLU staff who, despite being “overwhelmed by the volume of work,” were preoccupied with “factional endeavours” and were deliberately dragging their heels knowing that the inevitable backlash would be against the Corbyn leadership.
Between 2015-2016, after the party saw a surge in its membership, a large number of GLU staff were diverted onto a “validation exercise” where they would trawl members social media profiles looking for content that could potentially be used to reject someone’s membership or, at very least, deny them the ballot during the leadership vote. It’s claimed by HQ that the aim was to root out far right and far left applicants, including Tory supporters, Trotskyites and communists. Forde makes it clear, during this time, that some “GLU staff recommended some applications for rejection by the NEC on grounds which do not stand up to scrutiny,” such as donating to, or supporting, The Peoples Assembly, or for being a journalist, or for liking/retweeting Green Party material & expressing support, or for posting images of Socialist Worker Party protests and events, or for following & retweeting “far left groups and politicians,” or for simply saying you’re proud to be English. Some members were refused the ballot simply stating their “reasons for joining” was to vote for Jeremy Corbyn and that they would leave if he wasn’t elected.
In 2016, the GLU commissioned a tool that allowed them to use an member’s email address to locate their Twitter and Facebook accounts and then trawl their profiles for key words, selected by GLU staff. The GLU produced a list of “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of terms” that they were trawling for, including ‘Blairite Scum’, ‘Traitor’, ‘rats’ and ‘I voted Green’ or ‘I voted Tory’. This tool would later also be used to vet internal staffing applicants and even existing staff members.
On the 15th August, a member of the NEC requested details of the search terms being used, this produced a list of 1,959 “flagged phrases” and included 35 abusive terms derived around the word “Blairite” or from “Blaire” as a name, as well as 15 abusive terms derived around the word “Corbynite.” However, the list sent to NEC members had been shortened to just 294 “flagged phrases.” The vetting process resulted in 434 people being removed as a result of information gleaned from local authorities, 990 were rejected after they admitted they had been a member of another party [on their application form] but 2,540 members were rejected on other grounds, including for comments flagged up by the search tool. In the opinion of the Forde report, members of the NEC expressed some valid concerns about the general process and questions were asked about…
- Whether existing members (as opposed to new applicants) should have been subjected to validation checks at all.
- Whether checks on members to see if they’d broken any rules or breached any standards should have been used to vet members taking part in an internal election.
- Whether or not members who had been suspended in 2015 should still have been allowed to take part in the election “while their longer-term status was clarified”
- Whether it was even appropriate for the party to be engaging in trawling people’s social media accounts rather than responding to complaints.
- Whether retweeting, liking or sharing content should carry equal weight to member’s original tweets and postings.
- Whether using words like “hapless”, “Useless” and “Incompetent” should have been categorised as personal abuse.
- Whether it should be up to the NEC to “agree common standards for deciding whether the evidence justifies suspension or expulsion”
- Whether comments made before a member joins the party should be taken into consideration.
- Whether the party should have allowed more time to hear appeals before the ballot took place.
Forde suggests that concerns over entryism may have been valid but notes that the validation process hadn’t been applied to previous applicants. In his view this was clearly a factional exercise, even though GLU witnesses claimed that they were more concerned about right-wing activism. Forde rejects this claim… “the fact is, however, that GLU staff had a substantial role in deciding how those rules were interpreted, for example by choosing the list of search terms in relation to abusive posts. The list of flagged words should have been agreed by the GLU and the NEC, and published transparently. We can see no legitimate non-factional reason why the search tool was apparently designed only to catch abuse aimed at MPs on the centre and right of the party, and to ignore the majority of abuse aimed at MPs on the left (including Jeremy Corbyn)…. If the concern was about Right entryism, that was a strange decision… In our view the intention and effect of both validation exercises was to remove ballots from individuals who would otherwise have voted for Jeremy Corbyn.” In Forde’s view, they were targeting “applicants and members on the left” and the evidence shows that GLU staff were covering up their activities and legitimising their actions. As one Junior GLU staffer remarked, they were “saving the Labour Party” and another commented that they should run the Twitter hashtag #imwithjezza through the search tool in order to identify and target Corbyn supporters for elimination. Apparently, another witness told the Forde inquiry that GLU staff would literally ring a bell and celebrate every time they managed to suspend or expel a “trot.” Forde is convinced that “a material number [of members] were rejected on problematic grounds.” He also notes that they were targeting existing members, as well as new members, just before a leadership election, which clearly indicates that the motive was not really to tackle ‘entryism’ but to remove Corbyn supporters. These actions, in his view, “cemented mistrust of the motives of HQ staff in LOTO.” Forde further reveals that the NEC panel reviewing the cases “did not seem to have full visibility on how searches were being carried out” and the NEC panel were also expected to make decisions within 24hrs so they had barely any time to interrogate the evidence and simply resorted to “rubber stamping the recommendations” from the GLU.
Not surprisingly, many members began to feel “that the party’s disciplinary system was rigged against them” and that “complaints of anti-Semitism were being fabricated as part of a witch hunt.” Surprisingly, Forde dismisses this claim as false, despite knowing that GLU staff had no guidance on what constituted anti-Semitism and admitting that GLU staff were actively working to remove left wing members. However, Forde recognises that while GLU staff were engaged in ‘trotspotting,’ they were not working on investigating complaints or disciplinary action, of any kind.
A couple of GLU staff members have claimed that LOTO interference in the disciplinary process escalated post 2015, as the case load grew (along with the membership) and that LOTO “actively opposed or undermined decisions.” Forde admits they can’t take a look at all the cases for various reasons but agrees to look at two specific cases (2015-2018 Ken Livingstone and 2018-2019 Palestine Live Facebook Group) “because they were mentioned to us frequently in evidence as examples of the adverse consequences of the dysfunctional GLU/LOTO dynamic.” In respect of the Ken Livingstone case, Forde indicates that the evidence that he has seen suggests that the GLU claims are questionable and that, if anything, GLU staff were actually withholding information, about how they intended to proceed, from LOTO, which was surprising because “LOTO was expected to provide political cover for that approach.” Some GLU staff believed LOTO were trying to delay proceedings to protect an ally while some LOTO staff believed that the GLU were deliberately delaying proceedings because it was another way in which they could damage the Corbyn leadership. According to Forde, some senior GLU staff admitted that they only felt pressured in just a handful of key cases and added that it wasn’t just LOTO that they were worried about because they also felt pressured by the NEC, the CLPs and the membership. Alleged “pressure” and “political interference from individual NEC members.. meant that disciplinary processes reached a near impasse.” So, in March-April 2018, GLU independently took the decision to implement a new policy where they would email LOTO staff for their views on disciplinary matters. At no time was this policy ever solicited by LOTO. This was done, we’re told, because LOTO wouldn’t just sign off on GLU decisions (and would sometimes question them), so the new system allowed the GLU to “seek LOTO’s formal written agreement to GLU’s proposed course of action in each case,” and forced LOTO “to either sign on to disciplinary outcomes in advance or put their objections.. on record.” However, because the reason for this sudden change in GLU policy was never agreed with or explained to LOTO, requests for input from LOTO were largely ignored and this lack of engagement from LOTO was then used by the GLU to criticise them. One young LOTO staff member recalls the leader’s office suddenly started to receive email requests for guidance on specific anti-Semitism cases from the GLU and they would then chase them up 4-5 times over a 2 week period. She realised that this might look like LOTO were holding up disciplinary action so she interjected… “that whole process of checking cases came to an end when [we] really clocked on about what was going on.” LOTO then formally removed themselves from the process. Crucially, the LOTO staffer further tells Forde that none of cases that had been referred to LOTO, during this time, were for individuals that were known to her or were in any way associated with Jeremy Corbyn and yet the Labour right were painting a picture of LOTO trying to protect Corbyn allies.
In March 2018, the GLU administratively suspended a number of members of the Palestine Live Facebook group, one of whom was a Jewish member on the left who posts appeared not to have met the threshold for disciplinary action. His case was emailed to LOTO for their input on the 9th March (so this was during the March-April 2018 window), along with a cover note to say that they would normally suspend him but asking LOTO for their input. A LOTO advisor responded immediately explaining that he didn’t know the person concerned but felt that they didn’t have sufficient grounds to suspend him and suggested removing the suspension “pending further consideration of the posts.” On the same day, a LOTO staff member was asked by Jeremy Corbyn to look into the allegations against the same individual. Then, the following day (10th March), a senior member of LOTO responded to GLU to say that his posts were not anti-Semitic “in the terms of the definition we have adopted as a party or the guidance in the Chakrabarti report” and added.. “if we’re more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for anti-Senitism, something’s going wrong and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism.” Forde reports that the suspension was rightly lifted. In his view, LOTO’s response was perfectly reasonable and it’s clear that even GLU staff weren’t entirely convinced that they had a cast-iron case for suspension. Six other members of Palestine Live were also referred to LOTO between 9th to 11th March but because they didn’t get an immediate immediate sign off from LOTO they decided, on the 19th March (8 to 10 days later), to continue with the suspension process and not wait for input from LOTO. However, 3 days later, on the 22nd March, a further email was sent from the GLU to a group that included LOTO staff members and the incoming General Secretary, asking for input. An inexperienced LOTO staffer responded to say that they would look at the information and get back to them asap. LOTO then responded and recommended that, of the 6 people concerned, 3 should be suspended immediately. LOTO suggested that more information was required on 2 others and that no action should be taken against the 6th person. They also added that, at least in one case, the person was drawing on conspiracy theories about Israel, not “Jews or Jewishness.” A member of the GLU team then responded to thank LOTO for their help and suggested that, at least until the NEC working group concluded its report on anti-Semitism, it would be really helpful if they could get LOTO input on other cases. A member of LOTO responded to say that would be fine, at least until the NEC working group was in place, and that they’d be happy to offer assistance to help speed up the process, especially given the backlog. Forde notes that this was an “enthusiastic invitation” from the GLU so this would therefore appear to fly in the face of claims that HQ staff were “apprehensive of LOTO interventions.” Forde further confirms that they found “no evidence of an organised and premeditated power grab by LOTO.” In fact, the evidence that they have seen, if anything, clearly shows that “LOTO staff resisted invitations to expand their involvement” and, in fact, on 17th April 2018, LOTO even requested that their staff be removed from future complaints emails unless they involved politically sensitive subjects or an elected representative.
Forde agrees with the EHRC conclusion that it was wrong for the GLU to ask LOTO staff to comment on specific cases and that LOTO should expect at least to be kept up to date on any “developments in politically sensitive proceedings, and on the overall functioning of the complaints team.” Forde also agrees with the EHRC finding that there was no “systematic attempt, by LOTO, to slow down or dilute the party’s response to anti-Semitism.” The “fundamental problems” according to Forde were that there was no clear guidance on how to define anti-Semitism or what the threshold should be for suspension and there was ”a lack of clarity (on both sides) around what LOTO’s role should have been in relation to disciplinary proceedings”
Surprisingly, Forde then proceeds to offer an unqualified personal opinion. In his view, because of “the level of allegations of anti-Semitism [note here he is referring to ‘allegations’ not proven cases of anti-Semitism].. the concern of the Jewish communities [again, he has no way of quantifying the level of concern within wider Jewish community at the time and can only really reference statements from individuals or certain right wing Jewish bodies, who actually only represent a proportion of the wider Jewish community] and interest of the media,” the whole party, including the leadership and the NEC should have moved to “condemn and deal with signs of anti-Semitism within the party.” Here, Forde is literally suggesting that the party should have condemned “a problem of major significance,” when this was factually untrue and just because some people (mostly from the right) were raising allegations (mostly against left wing members) and because the media decided to make a story out of those unproven allegations. Forde even goes so far as to accuse Corbyn supporters of “denialism” and engaging in “conspiracy theories.” In coming to this view, Forde seems to have completely ignored the evidence that he, himself, has referenced in the Forde report, clearly showing how GLU staff were literally hunting down and targeting Corbyn supporters with false allegations of anti-Semitism. He’s also not looked at independent reports, such as the 2017 Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain report, which provides research that contradicts the assertion that the party has an anti-Semitism problem, stating that “Levels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population. Yet, all parts of those on the left of the political spectrum – including the ‘slightly left-of-centre,’ the ‘fairly left-wing’ and the ‘very left-wing’ – exhibit higher levels of anti-Israelism than average. The most antisemitic group on the political spectrum consists of those who identify as very right-wing: the presence of antisemitic attitudes in this group is 2 to 4 times higher compared to the general population.” More importantly, in making these remarks, Forde has completely ignored the party’s own data on the extent of ‘the problem,’ as published in Feb 2018 by Labour’s then General Secretary, Jennie Formby. This data revealed that there were just 673 accusations of antisemitism (accusations, not confirmed cases) between April 2018 and January 2019 and that this constituted a mere 0.1% of the party membership. Further, only 453 of these cases had sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation and not all of the 453 that were investigated were proven to be anti-Semitic either. Clearly then, contrary to popular opinion and to Forde’s assertion here, all the available data disproves the claim that the party has “a problem of major significance,” at least when it comes to anti-Semitism.
At the end of this section, Forde briefly touches on the critical media coverage of the accusations of meddling, levelled against LOTO by certain GLU staff, including the claims made in the Panorama documentary “Is Labour anti-Semitic.” While accepting that some GLU staff may have felt pressured, Forde rejects that there was any intentional pressure by LOTO and reminds us that it was GLU staff who started soliciting requests for written sign offs from LOTO staff, when they were not required to do so (and should not have done so). Forde also acknowledges that GLU staff may have had “mixed motives” when they adopted a strategy of insistently requesting LOTO input. According to Forde, it was “entirely misleading.. to imply that these emails [from LOTO]… were evidence of those LOTO staff members inserting themselves unbidden into the disciplinary process for factional reasons”
NOTE: The primary purpose of the The Forde Report Summary is to make the Forde report more accessible to a wider audience. We’re also scrutinising some of it’s findings, where appropriate to do so. Spotlight will be publishing the summary report in sections over the coming days and you can find links to earlier published sections below. Next instalment… Forde Report Summary (Pt7): (Allegation 3) Factionalism adversely impacted other areas of the party’s work during this time.
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