Litigation, as anyone who has ever been involved with it will know, rapidly acquires a life of its own, and its participants usually find themselves facing enormous costs, emotional and financial, as well as a vast expenditure of time.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of this than the long-running saga of the cases brought by Labour Party staffers and members over the leaking of an internal report about its handling of antisemitism in that not-so-distant time when Jeremy Corbyn was leader.
The document, it may be recalled, was originally intended to be a submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into the matter, which eventually reported its devastating finding that Labour had breached its duties under the Equality Act in late 2020.
However, it never did go to the EHRC investigators, largely because it was leaked and widely shared on the internet in April that year, soon after Sir Keir Starmer replaced Corbyn. It wasn’t redacted, which meant about 400 names - including many whistleblowers - were made public. Some, who had campaigned bravely to expose Jew-hatred during the Corbyn period, suffered death threats as a result, and were vilified on neo-Nazi websites.
Understandably, perhaps, nine of them, members of Labour Against Antisemitism (LAAS), decided to sue, claiming their data protection rights had been infringed. A further 21 decided to claim damages both for this and for defamation.
Meanwhile, to complicate matters, the party launched a parallel case against five of its own former senior officials, including journalist Seumas Milne, who was once Corbyn’s chief strategist, and Karie Murphy, who headed his office. It claimed that the five had orchestrated the leak – an allegation they vigorously deny.
None of these cases has yet come to trial and, if they do, the full hearings will start well into next year. That would be politically inconvenient: we will be in the run-up to a general election, and the last thing Labour will want to do is to remind voters of the darker aspects of the Corbyn epoch with potentially damaging evidence being aired in the High Court witness box. It could also prove to be incredibly expensive: if it carries on fighting all the cases, legal experts with knowledge of the matter say the hit to the Labour war chest could well be in excess of £20 million.
Recently, as I report in this week’s JC, Labour has tried to limit the damage by seeking mediation in the cases of the 30 whistleblowers, though not in those of Milne and co. This is welcome: negotiated settlements have to be better than months of further uncertainty. I know some of the claimants. They haven’t found fighting this easy, and certainly never envisaged the cases would still be going on after more than three years.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
What I find baffling is why it’s taken so long for the party to get there. At the last hearing on behalf of the nine LAAS members in February, their lawyers accused the party of playing hardball, of ramping up the legal costs with superfluous legal filings and hearings in the hope, it was claimed, that this might force the claimants to withdraw, so fearful would they be of being made bankrupt if they lost.
Labour denies this. But my understanding is that if the party had settled those cases early on, they could have got away with nominal damages and an apology – and far less mutual bitterness. Who had their hand on the tiller? Who signed off on the party’s previous strategy – which now seems to be going into reverse? Or is this a case where the litigation itself, like some monstrous legal AI, has been running itself?
Meanwhile, another reminder of the Corbyn period emerged last week in the shape of Ecotricity plutocrat Dale Vince, who has given Labour a donation of £1.5 million.
This has attracted a lot of adverse comment because he also funds the green direct action group Just Stop Oil, and it’s been suggested his money is part of the reason for Labour’s increasingly hardline energy policy – in power, it emerged last week, it would ban all North Sea drilling for oil and gas (so forcing us to import it, and achieving precisely nothing in driving down global emissions).
Be that as it may, JC readers will be aware of another reason for feeling concerned about the admission of Vince to Labour’s inner circle: his vehement anti-Zionism. Last year, he compared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, claiming it had “all the same ingredients,” namely “invasion, occupation, murder of civilians, destruction of homes and hospitals – and sieges”. He also flew the Palestinian flag at the League One football club he owns, Forest Green Rovers, and invited the Palestinian UK mission head Husam Zomlot on to the pitch before a game where billboards called on fans to end the ”invasion” of Palestine.
Corbyn, of course, would have no difficulty endorsing Vince’s views on the subject. Starmer, I suspect, very much would. In which case, it would be more than welcome if he would say so in public.
Given the possible size of the Party's legal bills, turning Vince’s money down altogether would, I suppose, be too much to expect.