Labour set to apologise to antisemitism whistleblowers

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Labour is poised to make a formal apology to antisemitism whistleblowers as part of a settlement designed to draw a line under allegations made during the Jeremy Corbyn era, the Guardian has learned.

The whistleblowers sued the party for defamation in the wake of a BBC Panorama investigation last year. No final settlement has been reached but sources said an agreement was imminent, prompting anger from Corbyn allies who accused the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, of capitulating.

Seven of the eight whistleblowers – all former Labour staffers – who featured in the documentary instructed the prominent media lawyer Mark Lewis to take action against the party.

They claimed senior figures had issued statements attacking their reputations and suggesting they had ulterior political and personal motives to undermine the party.

Among the former Labour staffers taking action are the former head of disputes Sam Matthews; the former head of compliance Mike Creighton; Dan Hogan, a former disputes team investigator; and Louise Withers Green, a former disputes officer. Iain McNicol, the former general secretary who was the eighth interviewee on the programme, is not involved in the action.

The Panorama programme Is Labour Anti-Semitic?, which was screened in July last year, made a number of serious claims about the party’s internal culture for dealing with complaints of antisemitism.

In a statement when the programme was broadcast, a Labour spokesman called them “disaffected former officials” and said they had “worked actively to undermine” Corbyn and had “both personal and political axes to grind”.

Both Corbyn and the Momentum founder, Jon Lansman, also suggested in statements following the programme that it had a predetermined outcome.

It is understood a formal apology has been requested from the party, to be read in open court. Labour declined to comment.

Labour is expected to settle a separate case with the veteran journalist John Ware, who led the Panorama investigation and who sued over a statement by Labour that the BBC had engaged in “deliberate and malicious representations designed to mislead the public” in its broadcast.

Ofcom rejected 28 complaints against the programme for alleged bias, concluding it was “duly impartial” and included the Labour party’s response prominently throughout.

Labour under Starmer has appeared eager to reach agreements to end ongoing conflicts over the party’s antisemitism crisis.

Any apology will prove controversial among Corbyn loyalists, who questioned whether settling it is a good use of party funds. The Guardian understands legal advice provided to Labour under Corbyn’s leadership suggested the party could win the case.

One Corbyn-supporting former member of its ruling national executive committee said: “It was clear advice: we were told that the Labour party would win the Panorama case. Then Keir came in and he seems to have decided to settle. If the legal advice has changed, it should be shared with the NEC, and they should be allowed to ask whether it is a good use of a significant sum of money.”

Some of the whistleblowers were named in a leaked internal report this year that revealed what it called a “hyper-factional” environment, in which hostility to Corbyn’s leadership hampered the smooth running of complaints procedures. The leaking of that report, and its contents, are the subject of an independent review chaired by the QC Martin Ford.

Starmer’s dismissal of his former leadership rival and party frontbencher Rebecca Long-Bailey last month, after she retweeted an article containing what a party spokesperson referred to as an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”, reignited divisions over the issue. Corbyn was among MPs who demanded a meeting with Starmer the next day to protest Long-Bailey’s dismissal.

Meanwhile, Labour MPs are awaiting the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) investigation into allegations of institutional antisemitism. The party revealed this week that it had received a draft of the report.

Many of the key individuals involved during the period under investigation, including the former general secretary Jenny Formby, Corbyn’s chief of staff Karie Murphy the head of complaints Thomas Gardiner and the director of communications Seumas Milne have since moved on. “Really, all the crucial people have left,” said one insider.

One person with knowledge of the EHRC report’s contents said it was “not a killer blow” for any of the individuals involved, and its findings were carefully couched in “legalese”. Senior Labour insiders expect it to focus on the failings of the party as a whole, rather than indicting individuals for specific decisions.

The Guardian understands several individuals who had been warned to expect to receive extracts of the report – suggesting they were being personally criticised – have not yet received them.

Starmer and his deputy, Angela Rayner, have both said publicly they will accept the EHRC’s findings; but Labour’s lawyers are nevertheless scrutinising the draft report in detail.

In a statement after receiving the report, to which the party has 28 days to respond, a spokesman said the party was committed to fully implementing the commission’s recommendations.

“Antisemitism has been a stain on the Labour party in recent years. It has caused unacceptable and unimaginable levels of grief and distress for many in the Jewish community, as well as members of staff,” the spokesman said.

“Tackling antisemitism within the Labour party is a priority and we are determined to take the further action necessary to begin restoring trust with the Jewish community.

“We are committed to cooperating fully with the commission’s investigation and implementing its recommendations when the final report is published. We will be making no further comment.”

Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints prompted a number of high-profile departures, including that of the Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger, who said the leadership had allowed, “a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation” to develop.

The Labour Together report on December’s catastrophic general election performance cited the perception that Labour was divided – including over antisemitism – as one factor in its defeat.