Labour’s General Secretary has hit back at Tom Watson as the row over the BBC’s Panorama programme on anti-Semitism within the party continues to escalate.
In a scathing letter Jennie Formby accused Mr Watson of “denigrating” progress made within the party in tackling the problem.
She said to him: “By choosing to ignore the steps taken by this party, and commenting so uncritically about the Panorama programme, you are complicit in creating a perception that antisemitism is more prevalent in the Labour Party than wider society.”
The BBC Panorama documentary last night saw eight form party staff say they were undermined in their attempts to tackle anti-Semitism in the party.
Former officials alleged that Labour’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, and its general secretary, Jennie Formby, interfered with investigations.
Four of those who spoke out, including former Labour general secretary Iain McNicol, broke non-disclosure agreements to do so.
Ms Formby who is on leave from her role while she receives treatment for cancer, said Mr Watson’s public letter to her was “inappropriate”.
She wrote: “Furthermore, traducing my reputation and publicly attacking me when you know I am undergoing chemotherapy and am unable to respond in the media, is another example of the inappropriate way in which you choose to discuss this issue.”
The General Secretary was accused by the Panorama programme of deleting emails and using a non-Labour email address.
She explained that she did so because her Labour address was compromised for a short time but denied ever deleting correspondence.
She also insisted she had no idea of the distress felt by staff which was thoroughly detailed in the programme.
Instead she said those employees had “access to an Employee Assistance Programme, which is widely advertised throughout the organisation”.
But she conceded more needed to be done to tackle the “stigma” of mental health.
Sam Matthews, Labour’s former head of complaints, said he had been pushed to the brink of suicide by the issues in the party.
“I sat at my desk thinking I can’t do this anymore,” he recalled of the weeks leading up to his decision to resign in June 2018.
“I’m being asked to do things I’m fundamentally not comfortable with, the general secretary doesn’t listen to me and the thought crosses my mind as to whether I send her my resignation and then do something that nobody should ever consider.
“I actively considered committing suicide, walking off her roof as some way not to feel trapped anymore. She has a balcony outside her office.”
Others recalled how they were signed off sick with depression and anxiety and even suffered breakdowns.
But in her letter tonight Ms Formby insisted she had no idea staff were feeling under such strain.
She said: “I did watch the Panorama programme, and I was very concerned to hear for the first time the distress suffered by some of our former staff members. To be clear we were not made aware of these issues at the time.”
Jennie Formby’s letter to Tom Watson in full:
The Labour Party
Southside, 105 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QT
Labour Central, Kings Manor,
Newcastle Upon Tyne NE1 6PA
0345 092 2299 | labour.org.uk/contact
Tom Watson MP
Delivery via email
11 July 2019
Thank you for writing to me. It is important that members are given some balance to your letter, so I am publishing my reply.
I am very disappointed at the way you choose to address this extremely sensitive and difficult issue. The Party has at all levels consistently shown that it recognises the vital importance of combating antisemitism, yet you consistently abuse your considerable platform to denigrate any progress that has been made, and any individual that is involved in that. Furthermore, traducing my reputation and publicly attacking me when you know I am undergoing chemotherapy and am unable to respond in the media, is another example of the inappropriate way in which you choose to discuss this issue.
Antisemitism and the consequences of that form of racism is extremely serious, as history has shown us. The Labour Party has taken significant steps to strive for the most robust complaints system of any political party when dealing with accusations of oppressive behaviours. These steps have been detailed publicly, and we have been open and honest about the need to continuously improve systems to deal with any abhorrent views members may hold – which, as you will know, are held by a small minority of the overall membership.
I know it is a real problem in the Labour Party. Like you I have seen it first hand. But we must deal with the facts. Antisemitism-related cases that have been taken through the stages of our disciplinary procedures since September 2015 relate to roughly 0.06% of the Party’s average membership during this time. Since I started as General Secretary, the speed of processing of antisemitism cases has increased by more than four-fold.
By choosing to ignore the steps taken by this party, and commenting so uncritically about the Panorama programme, you are complicit in creating a perception that antisemitism is more prevalent in the Labour Party than wider society. This is deeply irresponsible for the deputy leader of a party which seeks to be in Government, and risks exacerbating the fear that Jewish communities will feel. I did watch the Panorama programme, and I was very concerned to hear for the first time the distress suffered by some of our former staff members. To be clear we were not made aware of these issues at the time.
All employees of the Labour Party have access to an Employee Assistance Programme, which is widely advertised throughout the organisation. Their role is to provide a confidential support service to employees on a range of personal and work issues and their details are shared with employees to ensure they have support in place. They can provide a range of support including counselling. As an organisation we have a duty of care to employees. We have highlighted the importance of leaders and managers in talking to their teams to offer support through team meetings and 121s. If managers have specific concerns one of the HR team can help signpost more specific help or work with managers on what could be done as a team. If managers have specific concerns about an individual they can speak to a member of the HR team.
We will also be working on a campaign to help break the stigma of mental health in the workplace and will be working jointly with the trade unions to deliver this.
As well as staff accounts, hearing the testimonies from Jewish members of our party was distressing. We must continue working to ensure that our party is always a safe and welcoming space for Jewish people.
You also say in your letter that I have ‘withheld’ the EHRC response from you. You know that this is not the case. I wrote to you twice and offered to meet with you to provide you with the Party’s response to the EHRC.
I also updated the Shadow Cabinet on the EHRC and wider antisemitism issues on Tuesday. Given your considerable public concern around this issue, I am confused as to why you did not raise a single issue or question while at that meeting.
You also suggest in your letter that I deleted emails relating to cases of antisemitism. This is not the case. Labour email addresses are copied into the particular email chain so the emails are fully searchable through our internal subject request searches. Therefore nothing is destroyed or hidden.
These emails do not discuss any member’s data, so it would not amount to any kind of data breach.
It is the case that my Labour address was compromised for a short time after I began as General Secretary. Given that my inbox was accessed and its contents were leaked, I was clearly right to have concerns.
I agree with your point that this is a collective responsibility, and it is one I share with the NEC, the governing body of the Party. As I have repeatedly stated, the authority to share the document or not lies with the NEC. It has ruled that copies of the EHRC submission, a confidential document, are not shared more widely than already agreed.
Finally, I must also ask you once again to consider the impact that your actions are having on our staff in the Governance and Legal team. They have been working incredibly hard to clear all complaints, not just those of antisemitism, including the considerable backlog that had built up from 2016. For them to be brought into the public eye with no opportunity to respond or defend themselves must be extremely difficult.
Since taking on the role as General Secretary I have been unremittingly clear that the welfare of our staff is extremely important, and I would ask you to respect both the contribution that they make, and to recognise that they are unable to rebut or respond to any criticism you make in the public domain.