rs21 member Anindya Bhattacharyya argues that legal attacks on Palestine solidarity are part of a wider clampdown on protests and strikes, driven by an increasingly desperate and fearful ruling class.
Palestine solidarity protest in London, 2023. Credit: Steve Eason/Flickr

MPs in the Commons last week passed the government’s Economic Activity of Public Bodies bill by 268 votes to 70. The votes for the bill were overwhelmingly Tory MPs, while the votes against came from the SNP, the Lib Dems, a dozen or so Labour rebels, plus Plaid Cymru, the Greens and miscellaneous others.

The parliamentary vote would, of course, have been much narrower if 180-odd Labour MPs had opposed the bill instead of abstaining. Indeed Labour figures from all wings of the party had been sharply critical of the bill in the run-up to the vote? So why did Labour abstain? And what does that tell us about how it intends to govern?

A ban on boycotts?

Before we answer these we first need to understand the bill itself, which is quite peculiar in its structure. Its main provision is to ban public bodies (eg a local council) from making purchasing or investment decisions influenced by “political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

As stands this is very broad and would apply equally to boycotts aimed at enemies of Britain as it does to boycotts of allies. But the bill allows ministers to make a variety of ad hoc exceptions to the ban. So if an unusually patriotic local council wanted to sanction Iran or China – well Michael Gove could just grant an exception in this case.

But there is also an exception to these exceptions. Ministers may not, under any circumstances, grant an exception with regards to: (a) Israel, (b) the Occupied Palestinian Territories, (c) the Occupied Golan Heights. This “Israel plus” is the only territory to be explicitly named in the bill and given such special legal protection. No reason or rationale is given for why Israel gets singled out in this manner.

Backlash against BDS

This gets to the heart of the matter. The bill is framed generally, and the media debate around has focused on general questions of principle and extent. But its political target is quite specific: the bill is aimed against councils that support the Palestinian solidarity call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

There have been a handful of such cases recently. Lancaster city council passed a pro-BDS motion in June 2021, although it deferred this decision a few months later “until a comprehensive ethical and sustainability policy is agreed by council”.

Leicester city council adopted a BDS policy in 2014, and successfully defended it against legal challenges. A court of appeal judge ruled in 2018 that Leicester’s action was a “well-known gesture of political solidarity with oppressed groups overseas, as illustrated by calls for boycotts of goods from South Africa during the apartheid era”, and that its boycott policy was “temperate and legitimate”.

Gove responded to that judgement by baselessly accusing BDS supporters of unleashing “appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse” and vowing to take “decisive action to stop these disruptive policies once and for all”. Indeed, a ban on BDS was explicitly included in the 2019 Tory manifesto on the grounds that boycott campaigns “undermine community cohesion”.

Why did Labour abstain?

Once we grasp that this bill was always about shutting down Palestinian solidarity initiatives, we can understand why Labour made a lot of noise about how bad this bill was – even commissioning a damning legal report into its likely effect – but ultimately declined to vote against it.

Labour frontbencher Lisa Nandy spelled out the party’s logic in an in-depth interview with Jewish News shortly before the parliamentary vote. She made clear that while Labour disagreed with how the government bill had been drafted, it had no objection to and indeed supported moves to ban anti-Israel boycott campaigns.

“They could have put forward a very straightforward legislation that I’ve been clear with Michael Gove Labour would have supported,” she said, adding that the bill had “a number of far-reaching implications, none of which appear to have anything to do with tackling BDS, the issue the government says it wants to solve, which we share”.

So on the fundamental question of whether the state should use its powers to repress and outlaw boycott campaigns directed against Israel and its occupied territories, Labour and the Tories are in agreement. That is why the bill was passed so heavily, and that is why Labour will not repeal it should the party win the next election.

We are many, they are few

This battle over BDS should be set in the context of wider political trends towards militarised and authoritarian security states. The anti-BDS bill is one element of a swathe of recent legislation that seeks to suppress popular protest against state policy. In addition to the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Act of 2022 and this year’s Public Order Act, we have seen new police powers to stop the slow walking tactics used by Just Stop Oil. Further laws to restrict public sector strikes are in the works.

The big picture here is that Britain’s rulers are well aware of what a mess they are in. The economy is in turmoil, with the Bank of England aiming to induce a recession rather than sacrifice corporate profits in an inflationary period. Imperial tensions are rising, with Ukraine already a war zone and the entire Western world gearing up for a new cold war with China. And all this is happening as catastrophic climate change looms on the horizon, with seemingly no prospect or will to do anything about it.

In this situation security has become the new watchword. Those with wealth and power are intent on doing whatever necessary to preserve their position as the world hurtles towards disaster.

Previous high minded talk about the West’s liberal democratic ideals have been junked in favour of nationalism, authoritarianism, harsh border regimes and direct suppression of dissent. We are being put on a war footing – and so previously tolerated criticisms of Israel or NATO or the fossil fuel industry are now beyond the pale of respectable political opinion.

And when it comes to the question of Palestine, it cannot be overstressed that the British ruling class have more or less given up on winning broad public sentiment over to support for Israel. They know they have lost that battle and that Israel’s own actions making things worse.

So all this “lawfare” is about scrambling for second place: if you can’t win an argument, then suppress it, anathematise it, banish it from the citadel. The sheer ferocity of this onslaught can take us by surprise, but we should not forget it is motivated by weakness not strength. We are many, they are few – and they know that, and they fear that.

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