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Labour general secretary suggested antisemitism was a ‘theme’ used to attack the left

Leaked Twitter messages show the response of Jennie Formby, Labour's general secretary, to 'appalling' antisemitic Twitter profile set up during bitter Unite union leadership elelection

    Jennie Formby Credit: PA Images
    Jennie Formby Credit: PA Images

    Jennie Formby, Labour's general secretary, has sparked concern over her attitude towards fighting antisemitism after a series of leaked Twitter private messages suggested she believed the issue was one of the "themes the right use to attack the left”.

    Ms Formby made the remarks to former Barnet Labour councillor Alon Or-bach after he claimed Unite had failed to properly condemn an antisemitic incident during last year’s leadership election at the union.

    In a further direct message sent to Mr Or-bach, she added: "I must be honest and say I've rarely come across antisemitism in Unite.

    "The most common racism I've encountered from members has been directed at black and Asian ethnic minorities, and more recently has been Islamophobia and anti-East European, but fortunately it is few and far between."

    Mr Or-bach had attempted to raise the issue of antisemitism in the Unite union with Ms Formby in March 2017, after Gerard Coyne - who was challenging Len McCluskey to be elected leader of the union - was abused by a Twitter account set up in the name of Union Bloke after Mr Coyne was interviewed by the JC.

    The account featured an image which showed a photograph of Mr Coyne along with a Star of David and the words 'Jewish Mafia’.

    Asked for her response to this particular post, Ms Formby told Mr Or-bach, who she knew through Labour: "Coyne's campaign is being run by Labour's right-wing and is repeating many of the themes the right use to attack the left including misrepresentation on this issue."

    A Labour source told the JC on Monday that Ms Formby thought the antisemitic tweets were “appalling” and that she had restated Unite’s zero-tolerance to antisemitism to Mr Or-bach.

    The senior figure said the general secretary had asked Mr Or-bach for his ideas on how to tackle Jew-hate, and had encouraged complaints be made about those making antisemitic comments.

    But Mr Or-bach said he was “taken aback by how this incident of clear antisemitic slurs was handled”.

    A Labour Friends of Israel spokesperson also told the JC that the group was “deeply concerned" about Ms Formby's attempt to play down antisemitism as "a politically motivated smear”.

    In further direct message exchanges with Ms Formby, Mr Or-bach told of the comparisons between Israel and the Nazi regime that he had witnessed during his work as a Unite branch member.

    Ms Formby suggested there had "never been any issue of antisemitism within Unite" but added "although of course we've had a policy for decades of support for the Palestinian people”.

    She then revealed she had been forced to challenge an unnamed individual who had compared the Israeli government to that of Adolf Hitler’s in a social media post.

    Ms Formby said such antisemitism "usually" emerges out of ignorance "rather than deliberate and conscious" anti-Jewish belief.

    She said the individual who posted the Tweet had been "young and ignorant politically and wanted to show solidarity with Palestine during the bombing of Gaza, but never again”.

    Ms Formby wrote that this showed the power of education - and accepted more should be done.

    Mr Or-bach also raised the issue of the UnionBloke Twitter account and asked why neither Mr McCluskey or Ms Formby had issued a public condemnation of the antisemitic abuse of Mr Coyne.

    She replied: “There’s no way of doing that with someone who is anonymous. We've been asking around and no-one has any idea who it is, otherwise we would be able to deal with it."

    Ms Formby also made reference to the JC interview with Mr Coyne.

    She claimed: "Coyne's article in the JC firstly implies that Len makes up our policy, which demonstrates wilful ignorance, secondly it is something that Len is constantly referring to which is simply nonsense. And I guess thirdly it implies something is wrong with Unite policy."

    Mr Coyne had complained to the police about a spate of antisemitic messages he was sent after the JC interview.

    But in an effort to stop the police tracing them, the person behind the UnionBloke tweets deleted the account from social media.

    Mr McCluskey has repeatedly spoken out on allegations of antisemitism within Labour and once described them as “mood music”.

    The LFI spokesperson added: "At a time when the party is reeling from its antisemitism crisis, the general secretary must reassure the Jewish community that she is able and willing to take the steps necessary to rid the Labour Party of the scourge of antisemitism.”

    Mr Or-bach said senior Labour figures should stop attempting to blame Iain McNicol, the party’s former general secretary, for the failure to tackle Jew-hate.

    Mr Or-bach said: “I’d like to see a clear statement rebuking Dawn Butler and Richard Burgon’s aspersions that Mr McNicol was responsible for the party’s inadequate handling of antisemitism cases.

    A spokesman for Unite said: “Len McCluskey was not aware of these comments [from the UnionBloke account]. Had he been so he would have had no hesitation in denouncing them. 

    “Len is a life-long campaigner against such abuses and will not tolerate them from any quarter.”

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