A letter to Keir Starmer and David Evans

By John McDonnell MP

Dear Keir and David,

I have read the recently published Forde Report. I believe that the Report deserves careful consideration as it should play an immensely important role in shaping the principles upon which the future operation of the Labour Party rests. I intend to submit my views to you as I draw my conclusions on the different aspects of the Report.

In the context of the recently published Forde Report, I am writing first of all to raise with you the behaviour of the Labour Party in its treatment of Jewish Voice for Labour and its members.

The Forde Report makes a number of serious and important comments on the culture of the Labour Party, both what it has been, still is and should be.

The report emphasises the importance of recognising that the Party has to be a broad church with different ideological and policy positions legitimately contained within it and that the Party’s culture should be based upon a respect for this diversity.

However, the report goes on to demonstrate just how far the culture within the Party has been and is from this ideal.

To address the need to transform the Party’s culture, which is described as an urgent priority,  the Forde team focuses on a process of what it describes as cultural growth and suggests that responsibility for this should rest with those at the highest levels in the Party, i.e. the General Secretary backed by the relevant NEC committee. Forde adds that there is also a role for the political leadership in this.

Setting out its programme for cultural reform, including new codes of conduct, revised disciplinary processes and improvement of operational and recruitment procedures, the Report says the following:

“Cultural Growth, including the skill of deep listening, acceptance of differing traditions within the Party as legitimate and compassion, need to be led and demonstrated by the leadership of the Party.”

I fully agree with this sentiment.

For this reason, I am strongly recommending that, as part of demonstrating the seriousness of the Party’s intent to address the Forde Report’s concerns, both of you should address the treatment of the group, Jewish Voice for Labour, by the Party.

The treatment of this group and many of its members by the Party has been disregarding, disrespectful, at times uncaring, even brutal, and, some have argued, has amounted to discrimination.

The Forde Report cites an example of how the Party has refused to engage with JVL, stating in its section on antisemitism training that:

“We do recognise that there are other voices amongst the Jewish communities and Jewish members of the Party. Hence we are disappointed that there has been a refusal to engage at all with Jewish Voice for Labour’s proposals for antisemitism education and that CLPs are, we are told, not even allowed to enlist their help.”

The treatment of JVL goes beyond this refusal by the Party to engage with the group that legitimately represents a large number of Jewish members of the Party.

The Report has evidenced that the Party’s disciplinary procedures have been used to target specific individuals for factional purposes. Shockingly the Report confirms that this has been used to exclude people from a ballot, in other words, for ballot rigging purposes.

The evidence of the disproportionate number of members of JVL being disciplined, suspended and expelled from the Party must add to the Forde concerns that the Party’s disciplinary process has not been fair and has indeed been open to abuse for factional purposes.

The facts of the disproportionate impact on JVL members are clear.

JVL knows of 54 Jewish members of the Party subjected to LP disciplinary proceedings in relation to allegations of antisemitism.  Of these 47 are full JVL members. As far as the data produced by the Party on actioned complaints can be interpreted, it would appear that these Jewish JVL members are significantly (maybe 35 times!) more likely to face such distressing investigations than others, mostly non-Jewish, Labour Party members.

Attacks on current JVL Executive Committee members have been even more disproportionate. All 11 have been faced with disciplinary action, in 9 of these cases explicitly in response to allegations of antisemitism.  

It appears increasingly clear that this has happened because JVL – while never denying the reality of antisemitism in the Labour party – has challenged the unacceptable weaponising of it, confirmed by the Forde Report, and the interpretation of antisemitism imposed by the much criticised didactic approach to ‘antisemitism training’ .

I also note here the recent comments by Margaret Hodge MP with regard to the use of allegations by the Campaign Against Antisemitism to criticise Keir Starmer and to attack the Labour Party.  Margaret Hodge said “I’m fed up of CAA using antisemitism to attack Labour. Time to call them out for what and who they really are. More concerned with undermining Labour than rooting out antisemitism.”

Bearing in mind Margaret Hodge’s comments, if true, It would be helpful to know how many of the allegations used to investigate and discipline JVL members for antisemitism were triggered by allegations coming from the CAA. 

JVL has been in correspondence with the EHRC about the failure of the Party to engage with them and about the disproportionate targeting of their members. For instance their website notes in relation to their submission in March 2022 that:

“We have taken into account the areas of concern that the EHRC notes in its letters as relevant to its ongoing monitoring of the Action Plan, currently being implemented by the Party, namely:

· the Party’s process for appointing its Advisory Board on antisemitism;

· its failure to engage with a range of stakeholders;

· its failure / delay in responding to complaints;

· the disproportionate number of actioned complaints taken against Jewish Party members, and in particular anti-Zionist members;”

The way in which the disciplinary process has been implemented with regard to JVL members has caused immense distress.

There are numerous cases where JVL members have received notice of disciplinary action being taken against them and the process has taken a prolonged period of time; in most cases there has been a complete failure by the staff to acknowledge responses sent in describing the accused’s own experience of antisemitism.  Subsequent appeals have taken lengthy periods to be determined if at all.

Michael Howard is an example of the brutality of the process. Mike was a Jew, from a family with a history of fighting fascists, who had fled from the pogroms in Lithuania and Poland. He had first-hand experience of antisemitism early in life when he was bullied at school for being Jewish. Mike was a member of the Party for 40 years, an active trade unionist and served as a local councillor for Labour in Hastings. He was suspended from the Party on the basis of anonymous allegations made against him of antisemitism.

It’s hard to appreciate fully the distressing impact this type of allegation can have on a member of the Jewish community and a lifelong socialist like Mike.

Mike appealed against his suspension but the Party never acknowledged his appeal.

Mike died last November with the stain of antisemitism still hanging over him. It has been heart- breaking for Mike and his family.  Despite the Party being informed of his death and his widow, in December 2021,  asking that the appeal continue to be considered and that this underserved stain on his otherwise unblemished record as a Jewish Labour, trade union and anti-racist activist be lifted, there has still been no response. 

The case of the Party’s treatment of Diana Neslen is a further example of the harsh brutality of the treatment of JVL members.

You will recall that Diana Neslen is an 82 year old Jewish woman, who was investigated under the disciplinary procedures three times in less than three years by the Party. The result was that, with the assistance of the lawyers at Bindmans, legal action was threatened by Diana Neslen against the Party on the grounds of anti-Zionism being a protected belief.

The charges in her final investigation were dropped but she has continued to face what has been experienced and described as bullying and harassment.  A complaint has been lodged but there has been no response to date. At the same time a complaint that Diana Neslen lodged about her own experience of antisemitism in her CLP was rejected as being unsuitable for investigation.

In a recent letter to the Labour Party she wrote:

“I made a well evidenced complaint against a local councillor whose behaviour met all the criteria of an antisemitic attack.  You rejected my complaint.  Your suggestion that I might be disappointed minimises the distress and dismay I feel. “ 

Bearing in mind what Forde says about the inadequacy and partisan style of the Party’s antisemitism training and the value of work done by JVL and the Pears Institute on education on antisemitism, it is particularly ironic and disturbing that, for example, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, a JVL officer, has been found ‘guilty’ of antisemitism, suspended and told he will be required to undertake ‘training’.

The allegations against Professor Rosenhead included a challenge to a talk he gave in 2017 which dealt with 8th Century Jewish history.  This means that a Jew in his 80s, who is an officer of a body commended for its antisemitism training, is to be told as part of a retraining exercise what antisemitism is by a Jewish group, who hold a distinctly different view of Jewish history and Zionism.

These are just three, very stark examples of the harm that the current disciplinary process has caused to Jewish members.

The Forde Report accepts that the existing processes do not operate properly and are in need of significant reform.

In the light of this admission that the current processes are not satisfactory and in some instances have been used for factional purposes, it must surely follow that those JVL members, who have been the subject of these processes, must have the disciplinary actions taken against them rescinded or, at the very least have the right to have their expulsion or suspension lifted until their case can be dealt with under the reformed procedure.

The Forde Report has raised a large number of fundamental issues about the operation of the Labour Party at all levels.

I aim to participate in the discussions on how the Report’s overall findings and recommendations are taken account of and submit my views as the discussion of this vitally important Report is conducted and develops over the coming months.

However, I write this letter now because I feel strongly that there has been an injustice meted out to JVL and its members that needs to be urgently addressed.

I look forward to your views on how this will now be addressed by you both, on whose shoulders the Forde team places the responsibility to lead in putting things to right in the Party.

Yours,

John McDonnell MP

Image: John McDonnell MP. Author: Sophie Brown, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts