The first scheduled NEC meeting that Keir Starmer would have attended following his election as party leader would have been on 19th May 2020. The leak of the internal report on the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, however, resulted in a couple of special meetings being called.
Keir and Angela Rayner had already announced that there would be an investigation into the substance of the leaked report, as well as the circumstances of its production and release into the public domain. The contents of the report had already been widely reported by the media and there had been widespread outrage among party members over revelations that senior party officials had apparently conspired against Jeremy Corbyn, undermining Labour’s 2017 General Election campaign and impeding efforts to deal with anti-Semitism complaints.
Along with all of my fellow NEC members, I received hundreds of emails expressing shock and revulsion at these revelations, and demanding that the party take robust action to address the behaviour sighted in the report and restore the confidence of party members.
Shortly before the meeting on 23rd April, the NEC received draft terms of reference for the investigation from Keir. This document was not especially contentious, rightly acknowledging the concerns that many party members have felt on reading about the leaked report, and setting out the basis for an investigation to be overseen by a panel of four independent members. The proposed terms of reference fell into three categories: first, the truth or otherwise of the main allegations in the report; second, the circumstances under which it had been commissioned and written and those in which it was leaked; and finally, the structure, culture and practices of the party.
The meeting on 23rd April was convened solely to discuss these terms of reference. There was also a brief report from Jennie Formby, General Secretary, in which she explained that the document had originally been intended for the party’s lawyers in the context of the EHRC investigation into complaints about anti-Semitism in the party. Jennie also detailed the action that she had taken since the leak, including contacting the Information Commissioner’s Office, launching an immediate internal investigation into the data breach and contacting all those named in the report.
Keir said in presenting his draft terms of reference that he was sorry to be attending his first meeting under such circumstances and that it was necessary for the party to undertake such an inward-looking responsibility at a time of national crisis.
A series of amendments to the terms of reference had been submitted, most from the left of the party, and these were discussed in turn. The general thrust of most of these amendments was to emphasise the importance of investigating the substance of the report as opposed to the lesser matters of how it come to be written and how it had been leaked. This focus reflected the concerns of the many members who had contacted us and sought to avoid an undue preoccupation with identifying the source of the leak. One of the MPs on the NEC suggested that anyone suspected of having been responsible for the leak should be suspended, but thankfully this suggestion was not adopted. Unfortunately, most of the amendments were defeated, reflecting the weakness of the left following the leadership and NEC by-elections. Those that were accepted acknowledged the legitimate concerns about relations between party staff and the membership, reinforced the fact that any chance to party structures would fall outside the scope of the investigation and finally highlighted the fact that an apparent racist and sexist culture within party offices had been one of the most alarming aspects of the report.
The second special meeting on 1st May was called in order to seek agreement from the NEC for the people whom Keir Starmer wanted to appoint to the investigation panel. The NEC had not received these names in advance of the meeting and there had therefore been no opportunity to look into the record of the people involved. The nominee for chair was Martin Forde QC, a prominent black barrister who had provided advice on the Windrush compensation scheme. The other proposed members were Lord Larry Whitty (former Labour General Secretary and a member of the House of Lords since 1996), Baroness Debbie Wilcox (former leader of Newport Council and of the Welsh Local Government Association) and finally Baroness Ruth Lister (a well-known social policy academic and also a Labour peer).
Keir said that he had considered asking Lord Alf Dubs (former Labour MP for Battersea and more recently a Labour peer) to join the panel, but considered that Alf’s strong support for Keir’s leadership campaign might cause his independence to be called into question. Jon Lansman argued, however, that it was a matter of concern that there were no Jewish members proposed for a panel whose subject matter would partially centre on the party’s response to anti-Semitism complaints and suggested that Lord Dubs be added as a fifth member. This was put to the vote and I was among those who supported the proposal, but it was narrowly lost. I also supported the suggestion that Andy Kerr, from the CWU and Chair of the NEC Organisation Committee, should serve as an NEC liaison with the panel, but unfortunately this again was defeated.
There was some discussion about the members of the panel and about the process; Larry Whitty was probably seen as the most controversial choice during the meeting itself, due to his involvement in some of the factional struggles within the party during the late 1980s and early 1990s, although even some on the left felt that he was a figure whose judgement should be respected and it was pointed out that he had been removed as General Secretary under Tony Blair. All four nominees were overwhelmingly endorsed by the NEC, although some of us abstained at some cases. I voted to accept Debbie Wilcox, having worked with her on the Welsh Executive Committee and considered her to be independently-minded, but I have subsequently been concerned to see some of her tweets, which endorse strong criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and suggest a sympathy for right-wing factions within the party.
During both meetings, some of us raised the question of administrative suspensions of those alleged in the leaked report to have been guilty of wrongdoing; one of the main concerns of those party members who had written to use was that no action was being taken against former and current officials who appeared to have engaged in very troubling conduct, yet many ordinary party members had been suspended pending investigation of often lesser offences. While there were no guarantees offered of action in this respect, Keir said that the progress of the investigation should not impede any disciplinary action against particular individuals and Jennie confirmed that the Governance and Legal Unit was examining the evidence to consider whether any action might be necessary.