Labour is refusing to identify alleged leakers of a controversial internal report on anti-Semitism because it fears a backlash for “pointing the finger” at supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, the High Court has heard.
Lawyers for former senior official Emilie Oldknow made the claim as they sought a court order to release the names of those linked to the unauthorised release of the explosive dossier.
But lawyers for Labour stressed that its own investigation had not found a “smoking gun” on who had leaked the report and urged that the individuals, who are represented by Unite the union, should not be named.
The 860-page dossier, which claimed that factional hostility towards Corbyn hampered the party’s efforts to tackle anti-Semitism, caused a political firestorm when it was leaked to the media without redaction last year.
It included details of hundreds of staffers’ private WhatsApp messages that criticised Corbyn. Some of them expressed disappointment that Labour’s better than expected performance in the 2017 general election would mean he would remain as leader.
Lawyers for Oldknow, who is named in the dossier, had argued that the report was a “politically motivated hatchet job” and that it contained deliberately misleading and improperly obtained private correspondence.
Oldknow wants to force Labour to release the names of the alleged leakers so that she can pursue further legal action against them.
Five anonymous individuals, who deny any role in leaking the report, were represented by lawyers for Unite the union at the hearing on Friday.
Mrs Justice Tipples allowed written submissions on behalf of Unite, following a late intervention by the union. But she refused an application to hear oral submissions by Unite lawyer Jacob Dean.
At one point during the hearing, which was held via remote video links because of Covid restrictions, an unmuted attendee could be heard to say “Jeremy’s in the lobby”, an apparent reference to Corbyn listening to the call. An account under Corbyn’s name was listed among the participants in the meeting.
Oldknow’s barrister, William Bennett QC, argued that it wasn’t good enough for Labour to say it would only release some documents from its investigation rather than its conclusions of who it believed was responsible.
“Why can’t the Labour Party just say who the five people are, other than, one can only suspect political reasons – that it doesn’t want to receive the ire of being seen to actually point the finger at this element of this particular faction within the Labour Party,” Bennett said.
“What we’re asking for is the Labour Party’s conclusions about who it reasonably believed did it. And why it reasonably believed they did it and how, and supporting documents.”
He added: “All that’s being sought is inculpatory evidence, evidence of wrongdoing, anything to do with their private lives can be edited out before it’s provided to the applicant.”
The dossier caused a huge political outcry when it was leaked, with former staffers accused of working against Corbyn and of sexism and racism, charges they deny. The report was intended for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission investigation into anti-Semitism within Labour but was never submitted.
Amid claims that data laws were breached in the drafting and release of the dossier, Labour has passed to the Information Commissioner’s Office its own documents on the case. A separate independent inquiry into the leak has been paused by Labour pending the ICO’s review.
Bennett told the court: “One’s got to bear in mind here, this isn’t guesswork. These are conclusions reached by the Labour Party that gave it a clear view after a thorough investigation, that amongst other things was submitted to the Information Commissioner’s Office.”
He also rejected an offer from Labour to allow the named individuals a role in what could and couldn’t be made public.
“Unite is one of the most powerful trade unions in the country, it is one of the chief funders of the Labour Party. This is one of these situations where a deal shouldn’t take place in what would be described in the 1970s, in reference to government dealings with the trade unions, in a smoke filled room. Everything should be in the open.”
But Labour’s barrister, Anya Proops QC, said that disclosure of the names would be wrong because the party had only come to a “subjective” conclusion in its internal investigation as to who was responsible for the leak.
“There isn’t a smoking gun document. What has happened is the party has conducted its own internal investigations, which investigations have of course yielded a number of documents and has gone on to reach a view as to who is responsible,” Proops said.
Proops added: “What if the party’s got it wrong? What if it has reached reasonable views, based on the reasonable investigations that it says it’s conducted, but those views are in fact wrong, and if it is by itself, in identifying those individuals unfairly inculpating them?”
“We can’t categorically say we know for sure without a shadow of a doubt who did this.”
Bennett said that the names and other evidence would at least allow his client to pursue further legal action.
“Now in regard to ‘the smoking gun’, yes, of course, there’s no ‘smoking gun’. It would be very surprising if five wrongdoers set out surreptitiously to make these anonymous publications and left behind emails, for instance, from their email accounts to various newspapers.
“That is why Miss Oldknow first of all needs to know the names as she needs to have the narrative account… Justice requires that the order put before the court is made to enable Miss Oldknow to at least consider whether to sue the wrongdoers.”
The judge said she would announce her final ruling on Monday.