Labour issued a momentous public apology to ex-staffers in the High Court on Wednesday morning after they sued over the fallout from a BBC Panorama investigation into the party’s handling of antisemitism claims.
However, just hours before the announcement, there were reports that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his former communications chief Seamus Milne, and Labour’s former secretary-general Jennie Formby had sought assurances that their names would not be connected to the apology, in a sign of lasting anger.
Following the ruling, former leader Jeremy Corbyn branded it “a political decision, not a legal one.”
Seven former staff members, who voiced their concerns about how claims of Jew hatred among members were dealt with, sued after they were accused of libel in the Panorama documentary, which was broadcast last year. They are: Katherine Buckingham, Michael Creighton, Samuel Matthews, Daniel Hogan, Louise Withers Green, Martha Robinson and Benjamin Westerman.
The hour-long dissection of the inner workings of the party’s complaints handling unit contained claims of political interference in what should have been an independent disciplinary process. This was strenuously denied by the party at the time.
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According to the whistleblowers’ lawyer, William Bennett QC, Labour accused them of “acting in bad faith during and after their employment with the intention of harming” the party, calling the accusations false.
Mark Henderson QC, who defended Labour, said he “acknowledges that these claims about the Claimants are untrue, and we retract and withdraw them and undertake not to repeat them”.
A second case was brought by John Ware, the journalist behind the Panorama documentary. On Wednesday he was judged to have been “falsely accused… of deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”.
Following broadcast, the party claimed that he “invented quotes, flouted journalistic ethics and …knowingly promoted falsehoods, including by misrepresentations of fact and, by fabricating facts”, but the judge ruled that this was defamatory.
Henderson said the party wanted to “publicly set the record straight, and to apologise to Mr Ware for the distress and embarrassment that it has caused to him”.
Mark Lewis, the Israel-based lawyer who acted for the whistleblowers, said: “This is just the start. Actions are being taken against those who repeat the libels and will be taken against those who choose to do so in future.”
The apology does not put an end to the party’s five-year long antisemitism saga, because the Equality and Human Rights Commission is still due to publish its report into allegations that antisemitism was “institutional” within the party. This report has already been disseminated to Labour officials in draft form.
Outside court, shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said: “It is for the (Equality and Human Rights) Commission to make its findings public when it chooses… but we have brought to an end a chapter when the Labour Party was accusing whistleblowers of behaving dishonestly and I’m incredibly glad that we have brought it to an end.”
The Jewish Labour Movement, the community’s affiliate to the party, welcomed the decision, saying the “brave” whistleblowers “brought to the public’s attention the scale of discrimination perpetrated against Jewish Labour members.”
It is a sad reflection of its historic role as the Party of working people, that Labour sought to pursue and silence its former employees for speaking out against racism.”
Panorama shone a spotlight on the Labour Party’s failure to act, and the growing culture of denial that sought to victimise those who had faced discrimination.”
Labour said it “issued an unreserved apology to John Ware” and “agreed to pay damages to him.”
“Under the leadership of Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, we are committed to tackling antisemitism within the Labour Party.”
The statement added, that “If we are to restore the trust of the Jewish community, we must demonstrate a change of leadership. That means being open, transparent and respecting the right of whistleblowers and the free press and freedom of expression which includes the right to object to things written or published. We are determined to deliver that change.”