Formby stands firm against criticism

JVL Introduction

Skwawkbox has published a leaked email from Jennie Formby taking MPs Chuka Umunna, Anna Turley and Keir Starmer to task for their very unhelpful comments on Labour’s new code of conduct on antisemitism.

It shows Formby unfazed by their criticisms of the NEC’s new code of conduct document

This article was originally published by Skwawkbox on Tue 10 Jul 2018. Read the original here.

A Skwawkbox Exclusive: Leaked Formby email’s barb for 3 MPs for short memory over code of conduct

Over the past week or so, a number of Labour MPs have taken to mainstream or social media to attack Labour’s new code of conduct on antisemitism, claiming – incorrectly – that it waters down the ‘IHRA working definition’.

Among them have been centrists Chuka Umunna and Anna Turley, as well as Shadow Brexit Secretary and former attorney general Keir Starmer.

Starmer appeared on the BBC to criticise the supposed ‘failure’ of the code of conduct to adopt the ‘full’ IHRA definition – although in fact the criticism surrounds the examples that accompany the definition, about which many worry that they construe criticism of the behaviour or policies of the Israeli government as antisemitic.

Umunna tweeted several times on the topic and retweeted a number of criticisms by others of the same supposed failure.

Turley described Labour as ‘getting this all terribly wrong’,  quoting a tweet by the Jewish Leadership Council that condemned the same supposed failure:

turley nimn

Tonight, a leaked email sent by Labour general secretary Jennie Formby to the whole ‘PLP’ (parliamentary Labour party), which the SKWAWKBOX has obtained, appears to make a pointed reference to these comments and to their inconsistency with the history of the three MPs.

The email, which outlines the party’s response to criticisms of the new code of conduct, draws MPs’ attention to 2016 comments in a report by the Commons Home Affairs Committee (CHAC) in a light that is none too flattering to those who have been criticising Labour’s qualification of the IHRA examples (i.e. not the definition itself).

Formby told MPs (emphases added):

The October 2016 report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which included Chuka Umunna and David Winnick, with Keir Starmer, Keith Vaz and Anna Turley as members of the Committee during the relevant period, noted there was some criticism of the IHRA examples and made the following points:

* It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.

* It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.

Umunna, Starmer and Turley contributed to a report published just two years ago that raised exactly the concerns about the IHRA examples that Labour’s new code of conduct addresses and clarifies without diluting.

Ms Formby continued:

The seventh and eighth IHRA examples are therefore adapted and expanded upon with extended narrative in paragraphs 11-14 which make it absolutely clear that any departure from the principles outlined in those paragraphs is unacceptable.

As can be seen, the phrase “additional evidence of antisemitic intent” is drawn from the Select Committee’s own work on the subject.

This narrative directly reproduces the wording of parts of the IHRA text that do not appear in the list in paragraph 9. That includes the key wording of the seventh example: “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”. The IHRA text then gives a sub-example: “e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” The intention of the IHRA cannot be to prevent criticism of the Israeli state or Israeli policy for its differential or discriminatory impact on different ethnic or religious groups, which could be inferred from the phrasing of the sub-example. The real point here is about double-standards and the use of language, both of which the Code expressly covers. Such criticism is of course not in itself racist, but risks becoming so if criticism is levelled in circumstances where another state pursing similar policies would not face the same criticism – especially if it is couched in inflammatory language.

In other words, the trio – along with fellow Labour MPs David Winnick (now retired) and Keith Vaz – signed up to a number of the very caveats they have now been criticising and to some of the very wording they have now attacked, while other wording is taken from the IHRA definition itself.

The reaction of the trio and their colleagues to the email is not known. But Ms Formby’s decision to confront their readiness to attack approaches they themselves authored two years ago sheds light on the validity or otherwise of the criticisms they and others have voiced.

Formby rounds off this section of her email with an attack of her own on what she called the ‘misrepresentation’ of the code of conduct – and with a comment on the intellectual honesty and rigour required for a meaningful discussion of this vital issue:

It has been widely reported that the Code asks for antisemitic intent to be proven. This is a misrepresentation. The Code explains that, where antisemitic language or behaviour has not been used, but there is evidence of antisemitic intent behind that language or behaviour, this will also not be tolerated. Moreover, the Code states that the Party will also not abide name-calling or abuse, or the expression of views which are intended to upset or offend within contentious debates on Israel-Palestine.

I hope that when you read the Code of Conduct you will agree it is a thoughtful and intelligent contribution to the fight against antisemitism. It deserves thoughtful and intelligent engagement from those who wish to contribute to debate about it. As the Code itself makes clear, abuse and name-calling are never acceptable as a substitute for considered debate.


Labour’s new code of conduct is an important, constructive and intelligent step in ensuring that racist behaviour by any member is properly – and fairly – dealt with. It should be welcomed.


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Comments (1)

  • Jim Denham says:

    What the Labour Party has done is to engage with the IHRA guidelines as a living document, which is generally a good thing, and indeed what it would appear was intended by the writers of the IHRA definition. It does not read as something intended to be a code of conduct, but rather as the basis for raising awareness and deepening understanding of modern antisemitism. Even the short 40-word definition (which is really the working definition according to the IHRA) is described by the IHRA as “non-legally binding.”

    But Labour has nevertheless tried to make it into a Code of Conduct as well as, it seems, putting in place the foundations of what could be an educational campaigning effort.

    Labour’s document is based on the IHRA guidance plus a few points from the Chakrabarti report and some other sources.

    However, the row now taking place can’t be seen outside of the context of a factional battle between the Jewish Labour Movement on the one side and Jewish Voice for Labour on the other. Both sides have lost sight of the content and purpose of the IHRA definition and guidance. They see it as an icon, a sacred text, either to applaud and venerate or to despise and condemn.

    Labour has produced a document that confirms its adoption of the IHRA definition and basically reproduces the substantive points from the IHRA guidelines but with additional points and commentary.

    JLM is determined to condemn this because they wanted Labour to adopt the exact wording of the IHRA guidelines word for word. (That’s been the demand of the JLM, Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies of British Jews.) This is despite the fact that it is clearly based on the IHRA guidelines and includes all the substantive points (except maybe one – see below). This could be called the Morecambe and Wise objection – the new guidance includes all the right points, but not necessarily in the right order.

    JVL welcomes Labour’s new guidelines precisely because it’s a departure from the exact wording of the IHRA guidelines, even though they know that it includes the same content. They also welcome it because a) it comes from Corbyn’s allies and they know which side they are on, and b) the JLM are against it.

    So both sides are now spinning the document to be a bigger departure from the IHRA guidelines than it really is in order to have a faction fight about something symbolic rather than something real. Paradoxically, we now have JVL supporting a document that is based on and substantially the same as the IHRA “full definition” (working definition plus guidance) and the JLM opposing it.

    It’s probably the case that Jennie Formby, with the authority of Corbyn and his circle, made a deliberate decision to adopt the IHRA guidance in substance but not in appearance in order to offer something to both sides. Acceptance of the approach of the IHRA but, as a face-saving measure for JVL and others who opposed the IHRA definition, not simply signing up to the IHRA text.

    It isn’t true that four of the 11 examples have simply been left out. They have been addressed in a different way, some more clearly than others.

Comments are now closed.