Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn laughs next to Jennie Formby during the second day of the Labour Party conference in Brighton

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn laughs next to Jennie Formby during the second day of the Labour Party conference in Brighton

The political director of Britain’s largest union has been criticised after raising the fact the Labour peer investigating claims of anti-Semitism at Oxford Labour Club had visited the Middle East with Labour Friends of Israel.

Jennie Formby shocked fellow members of Labour’s National Executive Committee when she made the point at a meeting of the party’s ruling group last week after raising the probe, which is being conducted by Baroness Royall.

Formby, who was a driving force behind the motion to boycott G4S last year, said she had never heard of the former shadow leader of the House of Lords but had discovered online that she had taken part in an LFI visit nearly a decade ago. The remark was reportedly described by fellow NEC member Shabana Mahmood as “highly inappropriate” but Unite insisted she wasn’t questioning the peer’s appointment.

LFI’s parliamentary chair Joan Ryan has written to Formby to query the relevance of that visit to the probe into anti-Semitism. “If the reports are correct, I would appreciate an explanation as to why you believe participating in an LFI trip might disqualify somebody from investigating allegations of anti-Semitism,” she wrote. She also invited Formby to join a Trade Union Friends of Israel delegation to Israel and Palestine.

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson responded to the controversy by telling Jewish News: “Janet Royall is a woman of great integrity. I’m sure she will carry out a thorough investigation and establish all the facts as she has been asked to.”

A Unite spokesperson said: “This appears to be a misunderstanding of the situation.  Far from questioning Baroness Royall’s appointment, Ms Formby was proposing that the NEC should consider what additional support could be given to Jan, given the remit she needs to fulfil and the extent of the complaints that have been made. Unite remains supportive of a full consideration of these allegations and will support Baroness Royall in every possible way in this matter.” Formby is due to be appointed as the union’s regional secretary in the south east, leaving her current role, next week.

LFI lay chair, Adrian Cohen, said: “Frankly I’m not sure what’s worse Jennie Formby’s reported comments about Baroness Jan Royall or Unite’s attempt at clarification. It does suggest there is a problem within certain parts of the left of the party.”

Meanwhile, The Sunday Times reported that testimony to an investigation into the Oxford Club claimed members mocked victims of the 2015 terror attack on a Paris kosher supermarket and branded Auschwitz a “cash cow”.

The party promised “robust action” after the resignation of the club’s co-chair and subsequent claims of intimidation from the Jewish Society. An initial report by Labour Students has yet to be published but has been passed to the fresh probe being conducted by Baroness Royall.