Labour antisemitism row: Corbyn under fire over Karie Murphy peerage nomination

Heather Stewart Political editor
Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for nominating his former chief of staff Karie Murphy for a peerage while the party is still being investigated over its handling of antisemitism.

Murphy’s name emerged in the Sunday Times as one of several put forward by Corbyn – together with those of his former deputy, Tom Watson, and the outgoing Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Rosena Allin-Khan, who is running to be Labour’s deputy leader, questioned the timing of the nomination, given the continuing investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into the handling of antisemitism in Labour, in which Murphy’s role is expected to be scrutinised.

“I personally don’t know Karie Murphy well at all. What I do know is that she’s currently being investigated by the EHRC. And I made clear yesterday that as deputy leader I would take onboard every single recommendation by the EHRC. And Hope Not Hate [the anti-racism campaign group] said that anyone being investigated by the EHRC shouldn’t be recommended for a peerage. So I do think that needs to be taken seriously,” she said.

When did accusations of antisemitism in Labour start and how have they escalated?

Two major public furores about antisemitism occurred in 2016, with Labour MP Naz Shah apologising for an antisemitic Facebook post, and former London mayor Ken Livingstone making remarks about “the Israel lobby” and Hitler supporting Zionism in broadcast interviews that eventually led to him quitting the party after a lengthy disciplinary process. A report that year by Shami Chakrabarti exonerated the party of widespread antisemitism but reported an 'occasionally toxic atmosphere'.

Matters escalated in 2018 when it became evident that the party was receiving more and more complaints, to the extent that there was a backlog of disciplinary cases. Jeremy Corbyn apologised that April for hurt caused to the Jewish community by problems in the process and pointed to only 0.1% of members being under investigation for alleged antisemitic comments.

But the party was also mired in a row about whether to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which it ended up ultimately approving. Then accusations of political interference in the complaints process by aides close to Corbyn began to emerge earlier this year, which the party strongly denies.

When did the complaints about antisemitism turn into a full-blown crisis?

The resignations of some MPs and peers over antisemitism in February 2019 alarmed many Labour colleagues. Then Chris Williamson, a Labour MP and ally of Corbyn, caused an outcry for saying that the party had been 'too apologetic' about antisemitism complaints. However, many of his supporters in the party backed a campaign saying he had been vilified and badly treated. Then came the announcement that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission was placing the party under formal investigation over antisemitism.

In November 2019 the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, said Jews are justifiably anxious about the idea of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister, saying a “poison sanctioned from the top” has taken root in Labour.

What allegations were made in the BBC Panorama documentary?

In a July 2019 programme, eight whistleblowers spoke to a BBC Panorama documentary, with some saying they felt there was political meddling from Corbyn’s office in the process for handling antisemitism complaints. Seumas Milne, one of Corbyn’s closest aides, told officials the party was 'muddling up political disputes with racism' and must review processes. Jennie Formby, the general secretary, was accused of attempting to interfere in who sat on a panel examining the case of Jackie Walker, a high-profile activist who was eventually expelled from the party.

Labour strongly denied the allegations of political interference, and came out on the offensive, accusing the BBC of bias and calling for the documentary to be pulled. A Labour spokesman said the party had fully answered “a number of questions” put to it by the programme, and had also sent 50 pages of documents in response. The complaints to the BBC had been made “at various levels, including the director general”.

Has Corbyn himself been criticised over antisemitism?

Yes, particularly his record when he was a backbencher. For example, Corbyn has said he regrets calling members of Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” at a meeting in parliament in 2009. He accepted he had made a mistake by supporting a graffiti artist after his work, featuring several known antisemitic tropes, was removed from a wall in east London after complaints. The UK’s three most prominent Jewish newspapers published a joint editorial saying a government led by Corbyn would pose an existential threat to Jewish life in the UK.

How has Labour dealt with candidates accused of antisemitism?

Labour insists the a figure of 130 outstanding cases of antisemitism is inaccurate, and says it is “taking robust action”, including quick suspensions, a process for rapid expulsions and an education programme. However, it has not yet provided its own up-to-date figure. 

Some prospective candidates have been accused of antisemitism during the campaign. Gideon Bull stepped down in Clacton after denying he used the term “Shylock” in front of a Jewish councillor, while Kate Ramsden, who had been standing for Gordon, in Aberdeenshire, withdrew after it emerged she was being re-interviewed by Labour over posts comparing Israel to “an abused child who becomes an abusive adult”. However, other candidates criticised for antisemitism have remained in place, including Apsana Begum, who shared a post referring to “Zionist masters”. She later distanced herself from the post saying she did not share those views.

Peter Walker and Rowena Mason

The Jewish Labour Movement issued a statement after the news of Murphy’s nomination emerged, saying it had written to the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which scrutinises candidates, “with concerns relating to Karie Murphy, among others”.

It said the nomination was “deeply inappropriate and must be rescinded immediately”, and warned that “Jeremy Corbyn is using his final weeks in office to reward failure”.

The EHRC is expected to report in the coming months, and its recommendations will be mandatory. A Labour spokesman said the party was cooperating fully with the EHRC and was “taking decisive and robust action to root out the small minority in our party who have engaged in antisemitism”.

The Skwawkbox blog, which is widely viewed in Westminster as close to Murphy, said Corbyn had offered her a peerage and that “Ms Murphy – who was Corbyn’s ‘firewall’ during some of the parliamentary right’s most inexcusable behaviour – has agreed”.

Murphy, a close friend of the Unite union boss, Len McCluskey, was moved aside as Corbyn’s chief of staff in October after clashes with colleagues – and a disagreement over the botched attempt to abolish Watson’s job, on the eve of the party’s conference.

She went on to play a key role overseeing the party’s general election campaign.

The Guardian understands the shadow cabinet was not consulted about the nominations, and some members were infuriated by the news after the party’s terrible showing on 12 December.

One member of the shadow cabinet said: “Even though he knew that Karie was hugely unpopular towards the end, Jeremy Corbyn has been unable to shake off her spell. He believes that he owes her.”

Another irked frontbencher said: “Looks like the argument for radical constitutional reform just got a hell of a lot stronger.”

Labour was given the opportunity to nominate several peers as part of the “dissolution honours”, marking the end of one parliament and the beginning of another.

The prime minister is expected to use the opportunity to reward several Tory backers. Boris Johnson broke with precedent and declined to offer Bercow the peerage that is generally awarded to former Speakers of the House of Commons.

Bercow’s role in the parliamentary battles over Brexit was regarded by many Conservatives as disproportionately favouring remainers – and he has also faced allegations of bullying.

Watson’s peerage follows his decision to step down as deputy leader and not run again as an MP in his West Bromwich East seat, which subsequently fell to the Conservatives.

His elevation to the upper house had been rumoured at Westminster ever since the notably warm exchange of letters between him and the Labour leader when he resigned.

There had been frequent tensions between the pair, not least over Brexit, during Corbyn’s tumultuous leadership – but as Watson departed parliament, the Labour leader wished him luck growing the horseradish plants he had given him.

Murphy once worked in Watson’s office, and he quit as the party’s general election coordinator in 2013 over alleged attempts by the Unite union to install her as the Labour candidate for Falkirk.

The row prompted Ed Miliband to overhaul Labour’s relationship with the unions, including introducing new rules for electing the party’s leader that paved the way for Corbyn’s victory two years later.

A Labour spokesperson said: “We are fully cooperating with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We were the party that founded the commission, which has had its budget cut by 70% by the Tories, propped up by the Lib Dems in the coalition.

“All political parties should face scrutiny, and, if there are lessons to be learned on procedures then we will learn them.

“We are taking decisive and robust action to root out the small minority in our party who have engaged in antisemitism, and we are raising awareness about antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy theories, to enable more people to challenge and call them out.”