More than a dozen members of Labour’s ruling committee have accused party officials of defending “racist, sexist and abusive” messages about colleagues – and called for a public apology from Sir Keir Starmer.
One third of the National Executive Committee’s members, including representatives from four trade unions, wrote to the Labour leader this week accusing his office of misleading them about how the party dealt with leaked WhatsApp messages by senior officials detailed in a controversial internal report.
The row presents a challenge for Sir Keir, who was elected leader after promising he would unite the party’s different factions under one banner and professionalise its operations.
The messages, which included senior officials saying they wished a prominent Labour activist would die in a fire, calling a left-wing staffer “pube head”, and commenting that female advisers had “stopped wearing bras” in meetings, provoked widespread anger in the party when they came to light earlier this year. The party’s NEC ordered an investigation, which is still ongoing.
However, last week Labour’s press office provided a statement to journalists covering the story that defended the comments, describing criticism as “po-faced” and stating: “These were messages exchanged between co-workers in the expectation that they would remain private and confidential and the tone of the language used reflects that.”
The comment outraged NEC members, who called for an apology and retraction at a meeting of the body on Tuesday, but Sir Keir’s office is understood to have told them that the statement was not intended for publication and said it had been provided by the party’s lawyers.
But the offending statement, which The Independent has seen in full, was sent to journalists at the OpenDemocracy website from the Labour press office’s main email account and refers to “the party’s lawyers” in the third person. Although clearly written in legal language, it has the subject line “Re: URGENT: Right of reply offer pre-publication”, suggesting it was issued in response to a request for comment.
In their letter to Sir Keir, the 13 NEC members said: “The Labour Party’s statement was not only inexcusable in defending the racist, sexist and abusive comments in the WhatsApp groups, it also directly prejudged the specific issues that Martin Forde’s inquiry is considering. This prejudices Martin Forde’s inquiry and thereby undermines its independence.
“It is clearly unacceptable for party officials or officials in the leader’s office to politically interfere with or compromise the integrity of the independent investigation that the NEC has commissioned. As members of the NEC, we therefore ask that you issue an immediate apology for this Labour Party statement and retract it completely.”
The NEC members who signed the letter include left-wingers elected by members, but also representatives sent to the committee by trade unions, including the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association – which endorsed Sir Keir for leader – as well as the Fire Brigades Union, Aslef, and Unite. One of the signatories is Andi Fox, the NEC’s chair.
The Labour Party’s statement was not only inexcusable in defending the racist, sexist and abusive comments in the WhatsApp groups, it also directly prejudged the specific issues that Martin Forde’s inquiry is considering
NEC members’ letter
Huda Elmi, one of the NEC members who wrote to Sir Keir, told The Independent: “On Tuesday over a dozen NEC members wrote to Keir and Angela [Rayner, deputy leader of the party] expressing our concerns that Keir’s political secretary had given NEC members inaccurate information about the party’s communication with OpenDemocracy. Now, the release of this email proves that we were lied to.
“We must receive an urgent explanation from Keir and Angela about why members of the NEC were misled by Keir’s office about the party defending racist, sexist and abusive messages in a statement which has prejudiced the Martin Forde inquiry that we commissioned, and undermined its independence. The party must also issue a full, public retraction and apology of this statement, as was promised in the NEC meeting.”
An ally of Sir Keir told The Independent that the response was prepared by party lawyers in response to questions directed at an individual, and not intended as an official party statement. Some of the statement refers to the conduct of one individual, but the quoted passage describing criticism as “po-faced” and saying the officials had a reasonable expectation of privacy does not appear to refer to them directly.
The NEC members’ letter to Sir Keir adds: “Even if the party intended it to be a private, legal response or as a response on behalf of an individual staff member, it is still unacceptable for the party to attempt to minimise or excuse the disgraceful content of the WhatsApp groups, which included racist, sexist and abusive comments. Our concern is not only that the party defended the content of these groups publicly, but that the party would defend their contents at all.
“In addition to retracting the statement and issuing a public apology, we request an explanation as to how NEC members came to be given inaccurate information relating to this correspondence, and why the party would defend the contents of these WhatsApp groups at all.”
Peter Oborne, one of the journalists at OpenDemocracy who worked on the article, said: “We stand by our reporting of the Labour Party’s response to our article. The quote included in our article was unambiguously presented to us as comment for and on behalf of the Labour Party.”
A Labour Party spokesperson said: “There is an independent external investigation and a series of internal investigations being carried out in relation to the circumstances and contents of the leaked report.
“We take these matters extremely seriously. For the avoidance of doubt, we are clear that the comments that have been quoted do not in any way represent the party’s position in relation to the contents of the leaked report overall and do not prejudge the outcome of those investigations. It would not be appropriate to comment further while the investigations are being carried out.”