Jennie Formby has sparked fury by telling MPs she doesn’t answer to them after the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) unanimously backed a motion setting a one-week deadline for answers to 11 questions about tackling antisemitism in the party.
The motion, proposed by Catherine McKinnell and seconded by Ruth Smeeth, demanded Labour’s leadership disclose how many outstanding cases of antisemitism need to be investigated and how many members are awaiting training on Jew-hatred, among 11 urgent questions. The text warned the party risks seeming to be institutionally anti-Semitic” if urgent action is not taken against hate and passed without any member speaking against.
But the general secretary sparked fury by telling MPs at their weekly meeting that she answered to the party’s governing body and not the PLP. She added it was “impossible to eradicate” antisemitism and would be “dishonest to claim to be able to do so”.
Noting Jeremy Corbyn’s apology 10 months ago for the pain caused by antisemitism within his own party and General Secretary’s pledge to introduce new procedures to tackle the issue, the motion said: “In the months that have followed the PLP is dismayed that there remains such a backlog of antisemitism cases that are still to be investigated and a decision reached – in particular the high-profile cases that it was promised would be concluded by July 2018. The PLP is very concerned by reports that a number of cases of alleged antisemitism activity from high-profile members have been dropped.
“The PLP calls on the party leadership to adequately tackle cases of antisemitism, as a failure to do so seriously risks antisemitism in the party appearing normalised and the party seeming to be institutionally antisemitic.”
The motion calls for a report by the leadership to be delivered to the PLP meeting providing answers to questions including how many antisemitism complaints have been received and how many times the general secretary and officers of the party’s governing body have ensured no further action is taken. The proposers also ask how many staff are investigating complaints, how much has been spent on legal fees to pursue cases, which organisations have been commissioned to provide antisemitism training and what is the maximum timescales for responding to antisemitism complaints.
The motion also demands to know which Jewish community organisations have been consulted on the antisemitism code of practise.
One MP described the general secretary’s response to the passing of the motion as “disastrous”.
Margaret Hodge, who last year labelled Corbyn an antisemite to his face in the Commons, said: “If you want to get rid of the cancer of antisemitism in the Labour Party you have to have complete transparency and she’s refusing to do that.”
In a letter to MPs before the meeting, Formby insisted the party had managed to “clear all of the previously outstanding antisemitism cases from the investigation and disputes panel stages of the process.”
This claim was immediately dismissed by Ilford North MP Wes Streeting, who said that it “stretches the boundaries of credibility”.
She added that Labour “has robust safeguarding and member welfare policies which govern how the Party responds – including by disclosing information to the authorities – where material comes to light revealing a threat to a person’s safety.”
Formby, who noted that he had “scheduled a meeting with [Metropolitan Police] Commissioner Cressida Dick’s Office to discuss how we can make sure this process works effectively”, said that Jewish organisations now have confidence the party is taking complaints seriously.
“Previously, Jewish communal organisations were reluctant to engage with the Labour Party as they did not feel confident that we were taking their concerns seriously.
“However, the actions I have implemented were as a result of listening to those concerns and I hope that Jewish communal bodies will now feel able to re-engage with us on this issue which is of great importance to us all.”
Our response to @JennieGenSec regarding her comments on education & training in @UKLabour.
"We reject entirely the suggestion, made for the second time by the Labour Party, that it knows better than the Jewish community what counts as "world class" ways to combat antisemitism." pic.twitter.com/7lVTfzN051
— Jewish Labour Movement (@JewishLabour) February 4, 2019
One such organisation, the Jewish Labour Movement, which has been at the forefront of the fight against antisemitism in the party, was dismissive of Formby’s call.
It tweeted: “We reject entirely the suggestion, made for the second time by the Labour Party, that it knows better than the Jewish community what counts as ‘world class’ ways to combat antisemitism.”
In a joint statement, Jewish Leadership Council chair Jonathan Goldstein and Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl said: “We welcome the decision of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) this evening to set a deadline to hold Jeremy Corbyn to account over antisemitism. Since our meeting with him on 24 April 2018, the party has not taken the necessary actions to rid itself of this racism.
“His lack of leadership has been extremely disappointing. We hope the PLP’s motion will push Labour to finally put in place the recommendations we discussed with Mr Corbyn. If he is truly against antisemitism this is an opportunity to prove it, once and for all.”