A row has broken out in the senior ranks of the Labour party after it emerged it was trying to use non-disclosure agreements against former staffers who contributed to what is expected to be a critical documentary about Jeremy Corbyn’s team and antisemitism.
Tom Watson, the deputy leader, said on Twitter that using expensive lawyers to try to silence former employees was “as futile as it is stupid” and that he deplored it.
But John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said the legal letters were justified. He also rejected claims Labour was being “hypocritical” because it has also called for the law to be changed to stop NDAs being used to gag whistleblowers.
The split was triggered by Labour’s response to an approach from the BBC about allegations it will feature in a Panorama programme to be broadcast on Wednesday. The film has been made by the veteran investigative journalist John Ware and it is expected it will use leaked documents and interviews with insiders to revive claims that advisers working for Corbyn intervened in antisemitism disciplinary cases in such a way as to favour some of those accused.
According to the Sunday Times, up to half a dozen former Labour staffers spoke to Panorama despite having signed NDAs with the party. Some of them have received letters from Labour’s lawyers saying they could face legal action for breaking their NDA obligations.
Lord Falconer, the Labour former lord chancellor, said it would be “deeply wrong” and “hypocritical” for the party to “campaign against NDAs but use them to prevent embarrassment to Labour”. The Labour MP Wes Streeting also criticised the party for using NDAs in this way, and offered to use parliamentary privilege to disclose information on behalf of any whistleblower who felt they were being silenced.
In an interview on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, McDonnell said that NDAs, when used properly, were there to enable organisations to protect confidential information and that this was what was happening in this case. He rejected Watson’s claim the party was trying to silence people speaking out about antisemitism.
“What is happening is that the Labour party is reminding [the former employees] of their confidentiality agreement because you can’t have people, particularly when you are dealing with individual cases, information about individual members [speaking out] – that can’t be right,” McDonnell said.
he also said it may be necessary for the party to issue a fresh apology to the Jewish community for its handling of antisemitism complaints.
Asked if he agreed with Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, who is using a speech on Sunday to say the party owes Jews “an unqualified apology”, McDonnell said: “[Corbyn] made that apology. If Gordon thinks it hasn’t landed, let’s do it again, and let’s make sure that we repeat it, empathetically as well.”
He also dismissed reports of a rift at the top of the party and said he had not called for Corbyn’s closest aides to be sacked. He told the Andrew Marr Show: “I have confidence in them, of course I do. I have not told anyone to be sacked or anything like that, this is all myth. But let’s make it clear, Jeremy and I talk about policies on a daily basis. Yes, we will disagree on things but we will then come to an agreement.”
He blamed the stories on journalists attending summer receptions and “drinking some of the most nauseating wine ever produced from a grape”.
Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, said Labour would not use gagging orders “to hide anything that is illegal or improper” and that the party remained committed to legislating to stop firms using NDAs to cover up racism, sexual abuse or illegality.
Gardiner also launched a strong attack on the content of the Panorama programme, saying he believed it would present a biased account from staff opposed to Corbyn.
“My understanding is that it is not a balanced and objective investigation into antisemitism. It is a very partial view from a few members of staff who have a political axe to grind,” he told the programme.
Labour has been given details of the programme’s allegations, and Gardiner claimed it quoted “selectively” from internal correspondence sent about 18 months ago, when the party was in an interim period after the departure of its former general secretary, Iain McNicol, and before his successor, Jennie Formby, had fully taken over.
He said the correspondence came from former Labour officials who had asked Corbyn’s office for help in how to deal with antisemitism cases. But the programme did not make that clear, he claimed, and he said it did not feature the incidents where Corbyn’s aides proposed “a stronger response”.
In private, Labour figures have been even more critical of the BBC over the programme. One party source told the Sunday Times: “With a possible general election around the corner, this smacks of bias and interference in the political process by the BBC and a clear breach of their own editorial guidelines.”
On Sunday, the BBC said Labour was “criticising a programme they have not seen”. A spokesman said the corporation was confident the film adhered to its guidelines, and that Labour had been given a chance to respond.
Commenting on the programme, a Labour spokesperson said: “It appears these disaffected former officials include those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind. This throws into doubt their credibility as sources.
“Our records show that after these officials left and after Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which antisemitism cases have been dealt with, increased fourfold.”