Labour’s former head of disputes has accused Jeremy Corbyn of having done more than “any modern day political figure since the Second World War to bring about the rise of antisemitism.”
Sam Matthews – who lifted the lid on his time working for the party on Wednesday night's damning BBC Panorama expose of Labour’s handling of complaints involving Jew-hate – tells the JC how he was driven to the brink of suicide as a result of the intense pressure put on him by Mr Corbyn’s closest aides to deliver their extremist political project.
Mr Matthews reveals how during his two-year tenure working at Labour’s headquarters in central London, he personally witnessed interference in a raft of high profile antisemitism cases by Mr Corbyn as well as senior party figures such as general secretary Jennie Formby, chief of staff Karie Murphy, Seumas Milne, the leader’s director of strategy and Andrew Murray, another key Corbyn adviser.
“My view is that Jeremy Corbyn has done more than anyone in modern political history to bring about the rise of antisemitism,” he says.
“I saw first-hand the way his people operate and the way they allowed it to happen. I witnessed a deliberate attempt by these people to redefine what constituted modern day antisemitism – mainly so they could let their mates off the charge.
“After Jeremy became leader, he opened the floodgates and allowed people to join the Labour Party who never would have been allowed anywhere near it in the past.
“Whether he himself is an antisemite or not is an irrelevance. He is the biggest friend antisemites have had since the Second World War."
Mr Matthews continues: “It was shocking to me in a way that breaks my heart to watch the Labour Party normalise modern antisemitism.
“If you told me in 2014 that antisemitism in Britain was still a problem, let alone in Labour, I would have struggled to believe you. I don’t have words to say how ashamed I am to be part of a movement that has that as its legacy.”
Mr Matthews, who is not Jewish, decided to break his silence in February over Labour’s failure to address its antisemitism crisis after claims by Mr Corbyn that the party’s disciplinary processes remained independent of political interference – and following a statement from Ms Formby which suggested she had improved procedures which had failed under her predecessor Iain McNicol.
“I thought to myself that these statements were provably lies,” says Mr Matthews. “There is no way Ms Formby hadn’t massaged the figures she produced for Labour MPs that showed how cases of antisemitism were being dealt with.
“The critical moment for me was when Chris Williamson was suspended earlier this year. Jeremy Corbyn was asked what he was going to do about the situation with MPs like Williamson. His response was ‘It’s nothing to do with me – the system is completely independent’.
“They were now gaslighting the Jewish community and everybody else about what they were doing.
“I knew this because I had been privy to emails where Jeremy Corbyn’s Chief of Staff, Karie Murphy, was responding on a case by case basis on antisemitism in order to not suspend someone who they all knew damn well should be suspended.
“I thought I just can’t countenance this.”
Speaking in depth to the JC about his involvement in high-profile antisemitism cases such as those involving Marc Wadsworth, Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone, Moshe Machover, Glyn Secker and the infamous antisemitic mural that exposed Mr Corbyn’s support for its painter, Mr Matthews confirms that “the leader’s office intervened heavily” as soon as the opportunity arose.
The departure of general secretary Mr McNicol provided that moment.
“They had already started involving themselves in individual cases - whether it was with Moshe Machover or Glyn Secker.
“With both of those the leader’s office directly intervened - very heavily. I was privy to it and was then having to send ‘row back letters’ that I was not comfortable with, when both of them escaped punishment as a result of intervention.”
Mr Matthews is furious over claims by Labour that he was in fact being offered assistance in dealing with the complaints process by the leader’s office during the gap of a few months before Ms Formby began her general secretary’s role after replacing Mr McNicol, now a Labour peer.
“I can't think of a problem that I've ever had where I’ve thought to myself, 'Who will fix this problem for me - Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne?’ It was during the period at the end of 2017 and the beginning of the next year.
"I had taken decisions to suspend people such as Secker and Machover and yet I was for the first time instructed that I had to get it cleared by Karie Murphy’s office. [Mr Corbyn’s Chief of Staff]. Then came an email from Seumas [over the Glyn Secker case] telling me that 'JC' was 'interested in this one.'
Crucially, Mr Matthews confirms that he had personally been present at a meeting of Labour’s ruling national executive committee in 2017 – along with the Labour leader and Shami Chakrabarti - which unanimously committed the party to adopting the full IHRA definition of antisemitism with all its examples – a commitment subsequently ignored as the party was plunged into crisis last summer over its refusal to abide by the examples.
In one of her first moves as general secretary, Ms Formby brought in a new left-wing ally, Thomas Gardiner, to rubber-stamp all antisemitism complaints. Mr Matthews believes Mr Gardiner was put in position to do the leadership’s work for them. He made it clear he did not recognise the full IHRA definition with its 11 examples, meaning members who were facing sanctions over antisemitism were routinely being let off.
“I was in the meeting when the NEC passed IHRA with all the examples,” says Mr Matthews. “Jeremy Corbyn was in there, Shami Chakrabarti was in there. It passed unanimously. But the revisionist version of history they presented was that it was only the wording of the definition that passed.
“The process had changed. On antisemitism, we were told we can’t do anything unless we raised it with Thomas Gardiner first.”
Mr Matthews explains how relations quickly soured. “When Jennie [Formby] started she went to check everything with Karie [Murphy]. I regarded Karie as the real general secretary of the Labour Party at that time. Jennie was really just her puppet. Karie spent a ludicrous amount of time in her office when I was there.
“I would go into Jennie’s office on occasions to voice concern at some of the decisions being taken,” he says. “I lost count of the number of times Jennie just turned around to me and said, ‘But Thomas is legally trained’.
“I knew very quickly after Jennie started her job that I would only be able to put up with what was going on for so long. The constant undermining of what me and my team were trying to do had a terrible effect on morale.
“When we expelled Marc Wadsworth, my team put in days and days of work with lawyers presenting a legally defensible case, knowing he might try and sue afterwards.
“Our job as far as we saw it was to call out the gaslighting that the NEC agreed Marc was guilty of. When we got the result we wanted and we heard he had been expelled the office cheered.
“But then next minute I got called into Jennie’s office to be told off. She said it was ‘inappropriate’ to be glad that a Labour member had been expelled. She said it was not my job to expel members – it was my job to insure cases were dealt with quickly.
“You heard what Marc Wadsworth said at the hearing – I do believe he had received a supportive call from the leader's office.”
In March 2018, Mr Matthews was left shocked by the way the party dealt with the outcry over the Palestine Live Facebook group – of which Mr Corbyn himself was revealed to be a member.
“My team were in the process of doing a really thorough job on this matter,” he recalls. “There were over 600 members of the group and I wanted an organised response working out how many Labour members we should suspend who were members of the group.
“We were halfway through the process and I remember a new member of my team, who only started the day before, raised the case of one Palestine Live member who had written that Jews harvested organs.
“I remember my staff member saying, ‘Surely people don’t really believe this stuff?’ I replied that they did and that he should check to see if this person was a Labour member. Sure enough he was.
“My new employee was shocked – but to those of us who had been working for some time, this was just your everyday occurrence. We had become sanitised to the problem that much.”
"Things deteriorated further after Mr Matthews was telephoned by James Schneider (Labour’s head of communications under Mr Milne).
“The call came just before Prime Minister’s Question Time. James said the party wanted to look like they were responding seriously to the Palestine Live saga.
“He said Seumas wanted to announce to lobby journalists that the party had suspended three people over the issue. I was asked to randomly pick out three names to suspend. They wanted me to take just 20 minutes on a process that needed to be done thoroughly and methodically.”
One of the names Mr Matthews said should face suspension was the anti-Zionist activist, Glyn Secker for a clear pattern of antagonistic conduct towards the Jewish community.
It has already been reported that Mr Matthews received an email from Mr Milne alerting him to the fact that Mr Corbyn did not agree with the decision.
But Mr Matthews reveals to the JC that he received a 3,000-word email from Momentum founder Jon Lansman suggesting that he was “very upset about the suspension”
After Mr Secker’s suspension was dropped, Jon Lansman told Mr Matthews that his formal letter to Mr Secker was inadequate because it did not apologise to him enough.
On another occasion, after the Enough Is Enough demonstration by the Jewish community in Parliament Square, Mr Matthews had a meeting with Ms Formby. “She had just returned from meeting the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council. Jennie said, ‘Those are some of the rudest people I have ever met in my life.’
“She said: ‘I think it’s amazing that Jeremy did not just walk out of that room and shout at them.’
“To people like Jennie, the leader is without any faults. It really is like a cult.”
His time working at Labour HQ under such a regime began to take its toll. Mr Matthews was working 16 hour days, six days a week for a regime determined to undermine him.
“I sat at my desk thinking I can’t do this anymore,” he recalled of the weeks leading up to his decision to resign in June 2018.
“I’m being asked to do things I’m fundamentally not comfortable with, the general secretary doesn’t listen to me and the thought crosses my mind as to whether I send her my resignation and then do something that nobody should ever consider.
“I actively considered committing suicide, walking off her roof as some way not to feel trapped anymore. She has a balcony outside her office.”
Mr Matthews was prescribed anti-depressants by his doctor and underwent counselling after taking sick-leave. After just two days out of the office Mr Gardiner had sat in his seat.
Realising it was time to leave, having worked for the party since 2010, Mr Matthews was informed that he would be allowed to leave, while receiving the three months’ pay he was contracted to get.
But there was a catch. In order to receive “the money that would pay my rent,” Mr Matthews was ordered to sign a “draconian gagging clause”.
“It was made clear to me that in order to receive the money Labour were contractually obliged to pay me I needed to sign the clause. Jennie might deny this, but then I never had that conversation with her.”
Reflecting on the attempts by Labour to portray him now as an ‘embittered Blairite’ for his decision to speak out on the party’s failure over antisemitism, Mr Matthews says he has no regrets about breaching the gagging clause to speak to the BBC Panorama show.
“I don’t want to end up in a nasty legal fight but equally if that’s the game they want to play, if the action Labour wants to take is in attempting to silence whistle-blowers calling out racism, then sure.
“I’m confident morally I am doing the right thing. I’m far more interested in being able to look myself in the mirror and being able to sleep at night than I am clinging onto a settlement agreement.”
Mr Matthews says he felt “let down” and was angry at the large number of Labour MPs who had failed to speak out on antisemitism despite knowing exactly what had gone on in the party.
“There are so many who have remained silent on what is a defining issue for the party. And yet with this Panorama you have got junior staff members in their 20s willing to speak out and potentially put their careers at risk because they are so angry over what has taken place.”
He has also been angered by claims that the BBC has prioritised an investigation while ignoring allegations of Islamophobia in the Tory Party.
“Of course both issues should be called out in the same vociferous way,” he says. “The difference between the two though – and I say this before we know who the next Tory leader is – is that I don’t believe Theresa May is an Islamophobe with an army of Islamophobic advisers around here.
“I do think the Labour Party is led by an antisemite though. This is a leadership issue. I do think Jeremy Corbyn is turning blind eye to antisemitism. That is why this is a bigger issue.
“Someone needs to take responsibility. Jeremy Corbyn should accept he is responsible for the modern rise of antisemitism and take appropriate action, which would be to resign as leader.