Veteran activist and former UK Labour Party National Executive Committee member Luke Akehurst offers an in-depth look at the groups, procedures and key players who will help determine the Labour Party’s stance towards Israel in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory.
In order to understand how the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the British Labour Party will affect Labour’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians, we need to understand the status quo ante he inherits.
Labour’s May 2015 General Election Manifesto contained a remarkably bland statement of support for a two-state solution, and actually omitted any criticism of Israeli settlements whilst the notionally more pro-Israel Conservatives did condemn ‘illegal settlements’:
‘Peace and security in the Middle East are one of Labour’s most important foreign policy objectives. We remain committed to a comprehensive two-state solution – a secure Israel alongside a viable and independent state of Palestine. There can be no military solution to this conflict and all sides must avoid taking action that would make peace harder to achieve. Labour will continue to press for an immediate return to meaningful negotiations leading to a diplomatic resolution.’
This Manifesto statement was itself based on a marginally longer statement agreed by the Party’s National Policy Forum (NPF) in 2014 at the end of Labour’s four year rolling policy review: ‘Labour remains committed to a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution, international law and a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine.
Labour will uphold the principles of equality for all Palestinians and Israelis by respecting human rights and applying international law in all relations and dealings with Israel and the Palestinians.
Labour recognises that the illegal settlements and their continued expansion in the West Bank remain key obstacles to resolving the conflict. Labour has taken and will maintain domestic action to introduce labelling transparency, and will seek a Europe-wide approach to settlement products. Labour will not encourage or support any economic or financial activities within illegal settlements. Labour also supports an immediate end to blockade of Gaza, allowing the free movement of trade, aid and people.’
Former leader Ed Miliband and his Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander had in practice reached a compromise position on Israel which was fractionally to the left of the position taken by the Blair and Brown governments. This consisted of:
- Support for the two-state solution.
- Opposition to BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions).
- Support for air strikes in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge but condemnation of the IDF ground incursion (Miliband said: ‘I cannot explain, justify or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians.’)
- Support for a vote in the House of Commons in October 2014 in favour of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood.It was too pro-Israel to satisfy the pro-Palestinian left, but succeeded in alienating many Jewish voters who saw it as a dilution of the bipartisan pro-Israel stance of the Blair years.
Labour insiders have hinted that these positions were arrived at as the result of two deals by the leadership with the pro-boycott Unite trade union, Labour’s largest affiliate and donor. The first alleged deal was to pass balanced NPF text in exchange for public condemnation of the Gaza ground incursion. The second alleged deal involved Unite blocking a debate on BDS from happening in the 2014 Annual Conference priority ballot (a vote that decides which topics the Conference will debate) in exchange for the leadership whipping the House of Commons vote on Palestinian statehood recognition. The timing in both cases certainly works.
Corbyn’s 59 per cent landslide victory over three more moderate candidates places a man with a long history of support for the Palestinian cause as party leader.
Corbyn is a Patron of PSC (the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign). The PSC say: ‘He is tireless in his support for Palestine, visiting Palestine with Parliamentary delegations, arranging meetings with MPs, and urging the government to take action to redress the injustices done to the Palestinians.’
He is also a signatory of the 2002 Cairo Declaration ‘against US hegemony and war on Iraq and in solidarity with Palestine’ and was – until his election as leader – National Chair of the Stop the War Coalition, which has been heavily involved in street protests against Operation Cast Lead and Operation Protective Edge. Perhaps most notoriously he has previously referred to representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’ (a phraseology he now excuses as ‘diplomatic language in the context of dialogue’).
At the Jewish Labour Movement hustings during the leadership campaign, Corbyn set out his personal stance on Israel and the Palestinians in some detail, saying:
- ‘We shouldn’t judge everything to do with Israel through the prism of whatever Benjamin Netanyahu is saying from one day to the next – Israel’s politics is much wider than that.’
- He wanted ‘robust discussion’ on Israel’s ‘siege of Gaza’, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and alleged mistreatment of Palestinian child detainees in Israeli prisons.
- ‘Is it right that we are supplying arms [to Israel] in this situation? Is it right that we are importing goods from illegal settlements across the West Bank?’
- That he ruled out an academic boycott against Israel and it is ‘okay’ for products to be imported if they are produced in Israel ‘proper’.‘The Balfour Declaration was an extremely confused document which did not enjoy universal support in the cabinet of the time, and indeed was opposed by some of the Jewish members of the cabinet because of its confusion.’
He was somewhat less forthcoming at the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) Reception at Labour Party Conference on 29 September 2014, where he spoke for seven minutes whilst very pointedly not using the word ‘Israel’.
Corbyn’s inner team all have a history of support for the Palestinian cause – including BDS – whether that is his limited number of ideological soul mates in the shadow cabinet (Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett), the rising stars of the hard left in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) (Clive Lewis, Cat Smith, Kate Osamor and Richard Burgon) or his key staffers such as Head of Policy Andrew Fisher. Two key figures in his leadership campaign, now transformed into a grassroots movement called Momentum, are Jon Lansman and Ben Soffa. They are from different generations but share the same background as anti-Zionist Jews from Zionist families. Lansman is at pains to point out he supports a settlement goods boycott but not a general or academic boycott. Soffa is also the PSC’s National Secretary. A pivotal figure may be Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s Chief of Staff. In the past associated with the Socialist Action faction – which promotes BDS – Fletcher’s personal stance on the issue is more conciliatory as his former wife was Jewish and he has first-hand experience of Israel. He previously worked for Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, and Ed Miliband. In both cases he tried to build bridges with the Jewish community.
Stylistically there will be tensions between the three significant factional groupings on the hard left. Whilst nominally Trotskyist and heavily involved in PSC as a project, Socialist Action act more pragmatically as they are experienced in wielding power in advisory roles at City Hall under Livingstone. Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) like to present themselves as representing the average Labour member (which could well include support for BDS!) and have pursued a broadly similar agenda ever since the 1970s. John McDonnell’s Labour Representation Committee (LRC) has an uncompromising stance and its structures are open to left forces from beyond the Labour Party. Meanwhile, the major trade unions remain Labour’s largest funders and may hold the balance between Corbyn, his grassroots allies and the moderate MPs in the PLP. Unite is enthusiastic about BDS at the moment, but that could change if the replacement for Len McCluskey as General Secretary is from the moderate wing of the union. Unison’s leadership would probably want to drop their BDS stance, but have not been able to persuade their executive to dilute it. The GMB has been the most balanced of the three on Israel but this could end when Sir Paul Kenny steps down as General Secretary.
Corbyn’s extraordinarily large support base among a wider party membership that has doubled in size since May includes a number of disparate elements:
- A great effort was made to recruit new party members via the mailing lists of NGOs and campaigns such as Stop The War, People’s Assembly, Progressive London, PSC, and CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), most of which have an anti-Israel stance.
- Many members who were disillusioned by Tony Blair, the Iraq War, or the abandonment of support for collective ownership in the 1995 New Clause IV vote have re-joined Labour.
- Younger new members are often previously Greens, disillusioned non-voters or have been involved in single issue campaigns.
- There are a small number of battle-hardened far-left entryists from parties like the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). Though small in number they know how to operate politically.
Not all Corbyn’s support came from the doctrinaire hard left. He won considerable support from the soft left and centre of the party, or from people who agreed with his stance on austerity but not his foreign policy views. This was indicated by the cross-over voting further down the ticket – a deputy leader was elected who is culturally from the traditional right of the party, a London mayoral candidate from the soft left and Conference Arrangements Committee members who were Blairites.
The general impact of all these idealistic new members on Labour will be to radicalise local parties and pile pressure on MPs to take a ‘politically correct’ stance on Israel and other issues.
There are of course multiple sources of power and conflicting mandates in the Labour Party: the leader, deputy, shadow cabinet, PLP, National Executive Committee, National Policy Forum and Annual Conference. Corbyn’s ally Jon Lansman has acknowledged this, saying: ‘We may have the leader of the Labour Party … but we don’t have the Labour Party machine and we’ve got to do something about that.’ The creation of the Momentum network seems to be an attempt to mobilise Corbyn’s new foot soldiers to bring change to the other structures of the party. A battle for control of Labour’s institutions between Corbyn and anti-Corbyn forces looks set to take place.
In the shadow cabinet there remain a number of strong opponents of BDS. Deputy Leader Tom Watson MP is the Vice-Chair of TUFI (Trade Union Friends of Israel). Michael Dugher MP is Vice-Chair of LFI. Luciana Berger MP is the former Director of LFI. Vernon Coaker has visited Israel with LFI.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn presented a determinedly balanced stance at Labour’s Annual Conference, saying:
‘The relationship, the enduring friendship between our two countries, our two peoples and our two parties is one that will endure over the months ahead and is one to which I am very strongly committed. I want to see a Palestinian state so that the people of Palestine can live safe and securely alongside the people of Israel, living safe and securely, side by side as neighbours. I have been twice to Israel and to Palestine, to Gaza and the West Bank and I take away one memory in particular. The day I went first to Sderot and talked to the Mayor there about the rockets that had rained on that place, the fear that the children felt and he said “our children are so scared they wet the bed at night. I am a parent and I have four children.” Then I travelled a very few miles into Gaza and went to Beit Hanoun and talked to a mother there who took me to the top of her house where a shell had come through the roof and killed her 12 year old son. And they said to me “our children are scared, and they wet the bed at night.”And I thought to myself, here are two communities living literally side by side separated by this conflict and what do they both want. They both want the chance for their children to live in peace to grow up safe and secure and to have a better life in the years ahead.’
The stance taken by the PSC and LFPME (Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East) at the conference was a cautious one. Platform speakers at their fringe meetings generally avoided crossing any red lines in their rhetoric. There was no triumphalism displayed about Corbyn’s victory – they know Benn and the shadow foreign office team take a balanced stance. There was not a lot of buzz or sense of momentum about their meetings; in fact, activists complained that nothing has changed despite the scale of the Gaza protests. Both organisations seemed very focused on the limited policy goal of settlement boycott and sanctions. PSC Chair and former Labour parliamentary candidate Hugh Lanning used the phrase ‘settlements, settlements, settlements’. Cat Smith MP added to this with a call for an arms embargo, but this seemed a secondary objective.
The problem for PSC and LFPME is how to get the issue of Israel to the top of Labour’s political agenda at a time of great turmoil in the party and when many other issues are being advanced, as different causes try to take advantage of the sudden shift to a more radical leader. This is an iconic issue, but is it a priority for either side in the war for control of Labour? On the pro-Israel side it is a red line issue for a small minority of Labour MPs who would stand up to Corbyn on it, but of lower priority and far narrower support in the PLP than NATO, the Trident nuclear deterrent, or the EU.
A debate on BDS would almost certainly be lost if it got to the floor of the party conference due to pro-BDS stance of Unite and Unison. Trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote at the conference. These unions could also force it onto the agenda via control of the Conference Arrangements Committee and the priority ballot, but it isn’t a political priority for the Unison leadership and for Unite it is less important than austerity and related issues. For Corbyn himself, the appointment of his close ally John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor whilst leaving a moderate as shadow foreign secretary showed he is prioritising economic policy over foreign policy in the first instance. The evidence of the attempt to debate Trident at the 2015 Annual Conference is of a split in the Corbyn camp between conciliators and alliance builders – who want to consolidate his leadership by emphasising unifying economic and social issues – and ultras – who want to be provocative and pursue totemic policies as fast as possible, perhaps even hoping to provoke some Blairite MPs into splitting from Labour and leaving it as a more pure socialist party.
The impact of the wider battle over how Labour makes policy also needs to be considered. There has been silence about the future of the deliberative NPF policy-making process. It is a longstanding demand of the Labour left to make party conference more powerful, specifically to give local Labour parties the right to submit non-contemporary motions and to amend NPF documents. Both changes would increase the risk of a BDS debate. Corbyn has even hinted at national ballots of members on key issues (but the unions would surely oppose this constitutional change as it would undermine their current strength in the policy-making process).
The scenario Israel’s supporters in the Labour Party probably face is a race against time. How much damage can be done to the party’s policy on the issue before Corbyn’s anticipated lack of electoral resonance with middle England ends his leadership?
But just the fact of his election may already have done much damage: to Labour’s already very fragile relationship with Jewish voters, to Labour’s foreign policy credibility, and to the ability of Zionist Jewish activists to feel comfortable within the party.