Labour and Palestine: It’s time to speak up

By Hugh Lanning, Chair, Palestine Solidarity Campaign

A sea of Palestinian flags greeted the delegate from Harlow moving the Contemporary motion on Palestine at this year’s Party conference. Voted for debate by the CLP delegates, it was the first time in living memory Labour has pro-actively discussed a motion on Palestine. Passed overwhelmingly, the motion called for a freeze on UK Arms sales to Israel.

Not a giant leap, but a significant step forward for Palestine inside Labour. Maybe a response to the debates over the summer during which, for those listening, there was one message from Palestinians here and in Palestine. “Why aren’t you talking about us anymore?” One prominent Palestinian campaigner said privately in a Skype conversation from Ramallah – it feels like we have been ‘pushed under a bus’ by the British Labour and trade union movement.

It was not a quiet summer for Palestinians – Trump and the Netanyahu led Israeli Government were busy trying to kick a viable Palestinian state into touch. The US moving its embassy to Jerusalem and  ending its funding for Palestinian refugees to UNWRA, the massacre by snipers of protesters in Gaza and the passing of Israel’s Nation-State law – all issues on which a progressive, internationalist party should have been speaking out loud and clear.

Instead, until conference, there was a deathly silence. On some of the protests over the killing of the Right of Return marchers, there was not a single Labour MP in evidence. It was almost as if Palestine had become an issue on which Labour politicians ‘dare not speak its name’. The chilling effect was not limited to the corridors of Westminster, we have it seen with venues, even those owned by the Quakers and on university campuses, being challenged for organising events on Palestine.

This political silencing has been despite the evidence, now explicit, that there is huge support for Palestine within the grassroots membership and supporters of the Labour Party. Once again, at this year’s party conference the lanyard sporting Palestinian colours was the most visible accessory around the necks of delegates and speakers.

It was against this background that “Labour & Palestine” organised its first meeting. Held in the evening on Tuesday, it was packed to the gunnels with no room for many more. This initial meeting – importantly – was sponsored by major affiliated trade unions, including Aslef, Unite and Unison, as well as being supported by Jewish Voice for Labour. The impressive panel included MP’s Richard Burgon and Lloyd Russell-Moyle; Mark Serwotka and Kevin Courtney – general Secretaries of non-affiliated unions speaking as Labour Party members.  All spoke passionately about Palestine, all supported the initiative to launch a social platform to build grassroots support for Palestine within Labour.

The meeting heard that, under the moniker of ‘Labour & Palestine’ the intention is to establish an informal network for Labour party members who support Palestine. This would be done through an independent social media platform aimed at members, activists and clp’s to give them not only support and guidance but also confidence to speak up for Palestine.

In the light of recent discussions within the Party those involved in calling the meeting believe now is the time to speak up. Now, more than ever, Palestine needs a strong, progressive Labour voice on its side. The focus of L&P will be on party members and how they can harness the support there is within the Party so it becomes a proud advocate of Palestinian rights as part of Labour’s ethical foreign policy.

The problem is that Palestine has not been a priority issue for Labour; the challenge now – building on the support shown at conference – is to make it one. To have credibility as an internationalist and democratic socialist party, the Labour Party must, in Jeremy’s words, “give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people”.

Any ethical foreign policy for Labour must have securing freedom, justice and equality for the people of Palestine as a priority issue otherwise it will not be truly ethical – it cannot have a blind spot at its heart. To achieve this, within an anti-racist framework based on the principles of equality, human rights and international law, there is one small step Labour needs to take, but it would be a giant step for Palestine.

It needs to recognise in its policy and actions that there is a difference between being the oppressor and the oppressed. As a progressive socialist party we should always be on the side of the oppressed.

The idea underpinning ‘Labour & Palestine’ is to put pressure on the Party; positive pressure, from the grassroots up in support of Palestine, to make it easy for Labour in Government to be Palestine’s friend. And to send a message to Palestine – you have not been abandoned.

At the meeting there was strong support for the idea of establishing a grassroots network in support of Palestine. The intention now is to launch “Labour & Palestine” on social media later in the year with a presence on Facebook, Twitter and a linked web-site. Work is underway on building the platform. The first step will to publish a “launch” statement setting out the initial framework for ‘Labour & Palestine’ and invite party members to sign.

If you are interested in being kept up to date with this initiative contact info@labourandpalestine.org.uk .