Labour’s official left either meekly followed orders or stayed away – there were less than a dozen rebels. David Porter reports
Last week’s second reading of the Economic Activities of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill tells us a great deal about the dire state of politics in Britain – whether in the form of the first eleven of capitalism, the Tories, or the second eleven, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.
The bill is designed to stop public bodies like local councils and universities boycotting Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. In other words it is an attempt to kill off the campaign for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions, which so infuriates the Israeli government and all those who support the Zionist settler-colonial project. Naturally enough the charge is that BDS is anti-Semitic, anti-Zionism being routinely equated with anti-Semitism nowadays. This was all quite evident during the parliamentary debate, when Michael Gove, the minister responsible for the proposed legislation, repeatedly smeared opponents of the Israeli state, including the left. He even claimed that anti-Semitic “events” increase after the activities of the BDS movement, “including”, apparently, “supermarkets removing kosher products from their shelves following specific protests.”
Doubtless true, if those kosher products were made in the occupied West Bank. But nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Semitism. In the same way supermarkets might well have removed South African products from their shelves after anti-apartheid protests. Does that mean, however, that the anti-apartheid movement was anti-white? No, no, no, the suggestion is as stupid as it is outrageous.
Although the bill’s provisions are all of a piece with recent Tory attempts to limit democratic rights and narrow the room for political protest, it is done, of course, in the name of combating racism and promoting community cohesion. Compared with Winston Churchill, Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, a sort of progress. The Tories are all for combating racism and for community cohesion now – well, apart from blaming migrants for the NHS crisis, the housing shortage, the lack of school places and wanting to send them to Rwanda or lock them up on giant prison barges.
But there is an even bigger hypocrisy: it is Israel.
Here is what UN rapporteurs have repeatedly called an apartheid state. Zionism being a colonialist ideology and therefore a form of racism in its own right, because the original inhabitants of the land have to be oppressed, driven out and replaced. Even within Israel proper the Arab population is subject to second class status and faces systemic, racist, discrimination. Israel, is after all, a Jewish state for Jewish people – not for all its citizens. But what does Gove care about that? He and the Tory government are out to legitimise a greater Israel and delegitimise any opposition to what is a Zionist one-state solution.
There was a possible parliamentary bonus too: wrong-footing Labour. By voting for the proposed legislation, Labour agrees that BDS really is anti-Semitic; by voting against, the party shows that it remains as ‘anti-Semitic’ as it was alleged to be under Jeremy Corbyn. In the end the Labour leadership got off that hook rather easily. Lisa Nandy claimed the bill “drove a coach and horses” through the necessity of distinguishing between Israel proper and the occupied territories and therefore ran counter to the so-called two-state solution. Labour tabled a killer amendment and, when that predictably failed, abstained on the second-reading.
But, both in the days preceding the debate and during the debate itself, the official leadership line was to repeat their objections to BDS and to generally support the government’s position: identifying opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism. Given that Starmer had promised to ‘cleanse’ Labour of the non-existent ‘widespread anti-Semitism’, and the Labour right more generally had utilised arguments similar to those of Gove against the Labour left, how could it be otherwise?
Amidst these parliamentary games, however, the main reason for the Labour leadership’s position became clear. The debate showed that the big lie that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism is more than just an effective weapon with which to beat the left: Starmer’s explicit pro-Zionism, combined with the usual cant about the entirely bogus two-state solution, is both a practical and symbolic demonstration of Labour’s renewed commitment both to the foreign policy of British capitalism and to the global hegemon, the United States.
Support for Palestinian rights was an important issue during the Corbyn period: passing critical conference motions against the occupation and delegates waving the Palestinian flag were an all too visible sign that Labour was unfit for government as far as the establishment was concerned. So, falling into line behind Israel is the absolute sine qua non to show that the ‘dangerous leftism’ of the Corbyn period is now a thing of the past and that normal service in British politics has been well and truly resumed.
At exactly the same time as last week’s parliamentary debate, Israeli forces were carrying out an air and ground onslaught against the Palestinian population of Jenin, with the aim of crushing any resistance to the occupation. This resulted in at least 12 Palestinian deaths, hundreds of injuries, and widespread damage. Far from condemning these attacks and expressing political solidarity with the Palestinian people, rightwing Labour MPs, as expected, lined up with the Tory apologists for the Israeli state in making false accusations against the BDS campaign and its supporters.
Also, as expected, the official parliamentary Labour left proved incoherent and ineffective. In the last few weeks, after a long period of largely keeping heads down, a few voices, such as John McDonnell, have become a little louder in complaining about the intolerance and the internal lack of accountability under the Starmer leadership. Some have speculated that the previous silence had been a cunning plan to lay low in the hope that, in the event that Labour has only a small majority after the election (say 20 or 30 MPs), this will give left MPs a much greater influence over the direction of government policy.
Leaving aside the ifs and buts, and the likelihood of a general election being at least a year off, this brilliant plan is clearly an example of wishful thinking. After all, Sir Keir and his apparatchiks are ready, waiting and wanting to suspend and disbar any left MPs for no matter how trivial an offence. Hence, while there are some 30 MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group today, after the next general election there will be far, far, fewer of them. Meanwhile, though, the cunning plan provides a much needed excuse for being good boys and girls and doing nothing too naughty.
The official left’s response to the anti-BDS bill, its role in the parliamentary debate and division, show just how ineffective it has become. A few left MPs spoke – not least Jeremy Corbyn, who, though still a Labour member, sits as an independent. He denounced this “truly appalling piece of legislation” and made the telling point that “the bill would have made it impossible to campaign against apartheid in South Africa, and would also ban any effort by public bodies to impose sanctions against Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen” (echoing the legal advice from Richard Hermer KC, given to, but ignored by, Starmer,).
However, the SCG as a whole played no organised role, and, when it came to the vote, the bulk of those going through the ‘no’ lobby were SNPers, dissident Tories and other odds and sods: most of the SCG either abstained, in line with the official whip instructions, or absented themselves. Only 10 of the 70 noes came from Labour Party MPs. Where were Diane Abbott, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Zarah Sultana, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon and Bell Ribeiro-Addy?
Some justifications for the poor showing of the official left have been made following the vote, such as: pressing business elsewhere; and the argument that this was only a second reading, with the main division coming on the third reading. Pathetic apologetics. Given the political and symbolic importance of this bill, especially in the week of the Israeli attack on Jenin, you would have thought that even a moderately engaged left MP would have been stirred into enough life to turn up to vote. So much for the principled fighters for Palestinian rights and so much for an effective left opposition to the pro-imperialist politics of Keir Starmer! If genuine supporters of the Palestinian people and real partisans of militant politics are looking for a lead, they will obviously not find it in the SCG.