Will a ‘Vindictive’ Labour Party Bankrupt Itself Suing the Alleged Leakers?

They’ve already spent a bomb.

by Rivkah Brown

20 January 2023

a man with grey side-parted hair in a navy suit and white shirt smiles and holds his hand in front of his face
Keir Starmer speaks at an event in Wakefield, May 2022. Photo: Molly Darlington/Reuters

When on Saturday the BBC reported that Labour was spending millions suing five Corbyn staffers in a case that, following a fresh decision from the information commissioner’s office (ICO), it seemed increasingly likely to lose, panic set in across the Labour party. Senior officials were aware of the legal case that had been rumbling on since 2020, but not its exorbitant scale.

People from all wings of the party began having their doubts. “Do I think the party should bankrupt itself?” Ann Black, a member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) who is associated with the soft-left Open Labour group, told Novara Media. “The answer is no, and the reason is that the NEC is actually liable.”

Black has seen the party in far more dire straits: by 2008, Tony Blair had led Labour to the brink of insolvency, racking up £13.65m in debts. Yet with the party recording a £5.2m deficit last year and Labour’s legal fees mounting, things appear to be heading in a similar direction – no trivial matter for a party preparing to contest a general election.

The amount Labour stands to lose – between £3m and 4m, according to the BBC – is not much less than the £5.4m it raised in the run-up to 2019. In a statement to Novara Media, Jon Trickett, a leftwing Labour MP, says: “At a time when we are facing one of the worst ever British governments, our sole focus needs to be on removing the Conservatives from office.”

Trickett adds that the massive sums at stake are an insult to hard-up Labour members: “This court case is a distraction and it is leading to the expenditure of large amounts of often hard-up members’ subscriptions on a matter which looks like it has little substance. Time to move on as we enter into the final year before the likely date of the next election.”

The Labour Leaks.

For the past two years, the Labour party has been pursuing five of its former employees whom it believes were responsible for leaking an 860-page document – the so-called Labour Leaks – detailing Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints under Jeremy Corbyn.

The leaked report, originally intended for submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), alleged that anti-Corbyn staffers rigged ballots and misused funds to weaken the party’s electoral chances; undermined the party’s efforts to deal with antisemitism; and expressed virulent misogynoir towards leftwing Labour MP Diane Abbott. Many of its allegations were corroborated by Martin Forde KC, whom Keir Starmer appointed to investigate the report’s substance.

As the ICO decision renders the party’s case against the alleged leakers increasingly threadbare, many are wondering why it is continuing to pursue it so doggedly. “It seems to me inexplicable that the party would be spending such a large sum of money on an issue which really can’t benefit the party,” says John Hendy KC, a leading expert in UK labour law and a Labour peer, “particularly given that they don’t seem to be pursuing those people who were found guilty of wrongdoing by Martin Forde.”

To many within the Labour party who spoke to Novara Media, the answer is clear: the lawsuit reflects not the consensus of a party that has judged it to be in its financial or reputational interest, but rather the determination of a small group of individuals determined to settle factional scores at any cost.

Case closed.

The BBC’s report led with news that the ICO had completed its investigation into former Labour staffers Georgie Robertson, Laura Murray and Harry Hayball. The party alleged that in April 2020 the three were responsible for leaking the report, which it claimed breached GDPR since it was unredacted. The ICO eventually found “insufficient evidence against any individual” and declared the case closed.

This wasn’t the first investigation into the leaks that had come up with nothing. Shortly after the leak, the Labour party contracted two external investigators to identify its source as part of an investigation costing over £1m; neither identified the culprits. In a court hearing in 2021, the party’s executive director of legal affairs Alex Barros-Curtis admitted “[t]here is […] no “smoking gun” […] which shows demonstrably and beyond any doubt that a particular individual was the source of the Leak.”

In February last year, The Electronic Intifada reported that in its submission to the ICO, the Labour party strongly encouraged the ICO to investigate five named individuals – despite, by its own admission, having no conclusive evidence of their guilt – and to interpret their actions as a “criminal venture”.

The ICO’s decision forecloses any possibility of criminal proceedings against the staffers. Many within Labour hope it also marks the end of a nearly two-year saga that has cost the party a fortune.

This, however, is unlikely: the party is still pursuing separate civil action against five former employees – the three investigated by the ICO, plus Karie Murphy and Seamas Milne – over the leaks.

Some believe that the party may still have a chance of winning the case, since unlike the ICO – which asked whether the three were likely to be found guilty beyond reasonable doubt – the High Court will make its judgement only on the balance of probabilities, the standard in civil law. Others with knowledge of the case note that the ICO was unequivocal in its decision, leaving little room for even a civil case to be made.

“We reached a watershed once the ICO decision was announced,” says Trickett. “The action should stop.”

An NEC member concurred: “It beggars belief that the party is continuing to persecute its former staff when the national authority responsible for data protection says there’s insufficient evidence against them.”

Factional warfare.

Among the reasons Labour is pursuing the civil case is to deflect onto the alleged leakers the costs of legal action the party is facing from those named in the leaked report; if the party can prove the five are responsible, they will become liable, rather than the party. Some believe the party – or specific individuals within it – may have other motivations.

“One [reason they are doing this] is just malice, it’s factional,” says Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s former head of policy. “It goes along with everything else they’re doing […] the long pattern of expulsion and harassment of the left over the last three years.”

Novara Media understands that Labour’s legal director Barros-Curtis is one of the main drivers of the case. An ex-corporate lawyer who worked on both Owen Smith and Keir Starmer’s leadership campaigns, he has been described to Novara Media as inexperienced and out of his depth, operating with little or no oversight from the Labour leadership; NEC members weren’t informed of the ICO decision, which was made months ago, until the BBC reported it at the weekend.

A number of those who spoke to Novara Media suggest that at this point, Barros-Curtis may not be on a factional mission but rather a face-saving one, having spent so much of the party’s money on the case already. “People in Southside [Labour’s national HQ] have themselves on a train line,” says Trickett. “It’s time to stop the train, get off and go in a different direction.”

Barros-Curtis did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment.

A bad look.

Even if the party is successful in its action, the party may regret pursuing it. The reason is that the case could culminate in a two-week trial in 2024 – quite possibly during the general election.

“In an election where Labour will want to go hard on integrity,” a source with knowledge of the case tells Novara Media, “this will remind people of all the racism and sexism and abuse evidence in the leaked report.” It will also dredge up the sexual harassment NDAs the party pressured Robertson and Murray to sign, and which are directly connected to the case.

On Tuesday, the ICO announced it had closed a second investigation, this one into the Labour party’s own role in the leaks. This makes it even less likely that those named in the report will pursue their action against the party. The question is: if they drop their action against Labour, will Labour drop its own against the five?

For one NEC member, the question is how the party could not: “Now that three independent investigations have apparently not concluded they were responsible, why on earth would the party risk wasting millions of pounds on an eye-wateringly expensive trial which airs Labour’s dirty laundry on the eve of the next general election?”

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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