Unite members’ disquiet over union’s spending in defence of Corbyn project

Union has history of funding lawyers to defend Corbyn sympathisers


The JC understands that an increasing number of Unite’s 1.2 million members have begun to resent their union’s apparent  willingness to continue spending money on defending the Corbyn political project – a striking feature of union activity since the former Labour leader took charge of the party in 2015.

Recently, there has been concern among union members over the decision to fund an attempt by Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour communications chief Seumas Milne and former General Secretary Jennie Formby to view the wording of the libel settlement read out ahead of last month’s Panorama libel settlement.

The JC reported how a letter, which was sent by the legal firm Carter Ruck to Labour’s lawyers, had suggested the trio were “deeply concerned” about the impact of the apology on their reputations.

Unite members, who have noted  details of the case also being reported in Private Eye magazine this week,  are now asking why the union, believed it should pay for the trio’s costs for such a unusual legal move.

In the union’s history of legal battles to defend Corbyn supporters, the name of one legal firm comes up again and again: Brentford-based solicitors Howe and Co.

The firm achieved national acclaim in 2008 after founding the Gurkha Justice Campaign alongside the actress Joanna Lumley.

Howe and Co was also instructed to defend Labour in the Panorama libel case after the antisemitism whistleblowers announcing they were suing the party  in July 2019– but its involvement with Unite and the party under Mr Corbyn go much further back.

In 2016, during a legal row over whether Mr Corbyn’s name should be on the Labour leadership ballot, Unite instructed Howe and Co to act for Jim Kennedy, their representative on the party’s NEC, and stated that legal action would be taken in the event of the Islington North MP’s name not appearing on the paper.

In March 2017, a JC investigation revealed Unite’s involvement in the defence of two students who were accused of engaging in repeated antisemitic acts while members of the Oxford University’s Labour Club.

The duo – who were not identified in the report – received legal backing from Howe and Co, paid for by the union.

Then during a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), three Unite reps - Jennie Formby, Jim Kennedy and Martin Mayer – “ran rings around the room”, according to insiders.

Labour’s own Compliance Unit had recommended issuing formal warning to the two individuals. But as the JC reported at the time at the end of the NEC meeting it was decided there was “no case to answer on the counts of antisemitism”.

A Unite spokesman later told the JC: “This matter was decided upon overwhelmingly by Labour’s NEC. Any further questions are a matter for the Labour Party.”

Again Howe and Co were instructed by  Unite to fight a libel case with the former Labour MP Anna Turley.

It is understood that the case – in which Ms Turley sued the union and Stephen Walker, editor of a pro-Corbyn website - could have been settled for less than £10, 000 in 2017, but instead, after ending up in the High Court.

According to reports shortly after the trial in December last year the case will cost Unite  £1.5M to £2M.

To the fury of members, who vented their anger on social media, Unite also picked up the legal bill for Mr Walker.

In the past Howe and Co has also  represented activists such as Jackie Walker, as she attempted to challenge her expulsion  from Labour over antisemitism.

More recently it has represented Mr Corbyn himself in his libel case against the Jewish blogger Richard Millett, which is now set to go to full trial.

Meanwhile, last month, the JC revealed that Mr Beckett, Unite’s head of legal and a close ally of Mr McCluskey, had been congratulated at a meeting of left-wing activists for offering “practical support” to help “help fight the witch-hunt and purge of left-wing Labour members.”

Kerry-Ann Mendoza, editor of The Canary, told the online meeting that as “a personal witness” she knew “what side of the battle he was on”, adding that Mr Beckett had helped members of the union and the Labour Party “face down these battles”.

Labour members expelled or suspended from the party for antisemitism have long suggested they are the victims of a “witch-hunt and purge” in the party.

Ms Mendoza – who has repeatedly faced charges of using antisemitic language but is not a Labour member – told the July 16 meeting: “I know the moral and practical support he extended to people during what was an incredibly difficult period of time for Unite members, Labour members and all sorts.

“People like us who work at The Canary to face down these battles. I know we did so with you at our side.”

Mr Beckett was brought into Unite as its head in-house lawyer after he and his partners sold their Cheshire firm for a reported £2.69m in 2011.

In 2009 he was fined £5,000 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after his firm – along with others – were found to have wrongly deducted a claims handling company’s fees from the pay-outs to sick and injured miners it represented. But he remains extremely close to Mr McCluskey, who still views him as his natural successor when he stands down in 2022.

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