LABOUR’S former and current leader have clashed over the party’s decision to pay "substantial damages" to whistleblowers who contributed to a TV expose of its handling of antisemitism.

An unreserved apology was also issued over "defamatory and false allegations" made following a BBC Panorama investigation.

Ex-leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was "disappointing" that the party had settled the claim, adding that it was a "political decision, not a legal one".

But it is the latest sign of Keir Starmer’s attempts to draw a clear distinction between the party he leads and the one over which Corbyn presided.

Seven former employees from the party's governance and legal unit, who were responsible for the investigation of allegations of misconduct by party members, sued Labour after it issued a press release describing them as having "personal and political axes to grind".

The legal action followed the broadcast in July 2019 of a BBC Panorama programme titled Is Labour Anti-Semitic?.

Labour also apologised to John Ware – the journalist who made the programme – for falsely accusing him of "deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public". The party agreed to pay "substantial damages" to the journalist.

In a statement, the claimants' solicitor Mark Lewis said: "Today in the High Court, the Labour Party retracted its false allegations made about the Panorama programme asking whether Labour was anti-Semitic.

"The answer was a clear 'yes'. Labour chose to double down and attack the programme's presenter, John Ware, and the whistleblowers rather than addressing the truth of the problem."

Labour's handling of anti-Semitism allegations under Corbyn's leadership is the subject of an inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – and Starmer has already received a draft report from the watchdog.

The party said that under Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner, Labour is "committed to tackling anti-Semitism".

In a statement, the party said: "Anti-Semitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years. It has caused unacceptable and unimaginable levels of grief and distress for many in the Jewish community, as well as members of staff.

"If we are to restore the trust of the Jewish community, we must demonstrate a change of leadership."

READ MORE: Labour to pay 'substantial damages' to antisemitism whistleblowers

But Corbyn and Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union which is Labour's biggest donor, condemned the decision.

They both pointed to a leaked report which detailed the factional splits within the party's HQ as a potential defence to the defamation case.

Corbyn said: "The party's decision to apologise today and make substantial payments to former staff who sued the party in relation to last year's Panorama programme is a political decision, not a legal one.

"Our legal advice was that the party had a strong defence, and the evidence in the leaked Labour report that is now the subject of an NEC inquiry led by Martin Forde QC strengthened concerns about the role played by some of those who took part in the programme.

"The decision to settle these claims in this way is disappointing, and risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in recent years.

"To give our members the answers and justice they deserve, the inquiry led by Martin Forde must now fully address the evidence the internal report uncovered of racism, sexism, factionalism and obstruction of Labour's 2017 general election campaign."

McCluskey added: "Today's settlement is a misuse of Labour Party funds to settle a case it was advised we would win in court."

The settlement was welcomed by Jewish Labour campaigners.

Senior MP Dame Margaret Hodge said: "This is a big step in the right direction and shows just how far the Labour Party has come since last year."

The Jewish Labour Movement said: "It is a sad reflection of its historic role as the party of working people that Labour sought to pursue and silence its former employees for speaking out against racism."

The BBC welcomed the "long overdue apology" to Ware and the Panorama whistleblowers.