Palestine – A question of balance?

By Hugh Lanning

A historic vote. That is how the Palestinian Ambassador, Husam Zomlot, described the vote at last week’s Labour Party Conference to pass a ground-breaking motion on Palestine.  Moved by Young Labour and Wolverhampton CLP, the motion was passed overwhelmingly on a show of hands with the support of large majorities both amongst the unions and delegates from constituencies.

The resolution represents a step on from motions passed in previous years in two key respects. First, it references apartheid, quoting TUC policy describing the threat of annexation and the never-ending settlement building as “another significant step” towards the UN Crime of Apartheid. This crime isdescribed at length in the also-quoted, recent reports by Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, and Human Rights Watch.

Secondly, the motion calls – unequivocally, for Labour “to support ‘effective measures’ including sanctions, as called for by Palestinian civil society, against actions by the Israeli government that are illegal according to international law”. This call for sanctions is a step change for the Labour Party and would potentially include action to stop building settlements, reversing any annexation and aimed at ending the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

Before the ink was dry, without any democratic debate or discussion, in an obviously pre-planned move, the Shadow Foreign Secretary – Lisa Nandy, distanced herself and Keir Starmer from the motion as it did not represent a “fair and balanced” approach. At Labour & Palestine’s huge fringe meeting on Tuesday night the Palestinian ambassador said, “I’ll tell you about balance,” and went on to describe the reality of living under occupation by one of the strongest military regimes on the planet.

In fact, the official Labour Party position has never even been one of balance – from Balfour to Starmer, it has been pro-Israel, pro-settlement and anti-Palestinian self-determination. To treat the Palestinians with the same deference and attention as is shown the Israeli government would be a step forward. In practice, Palestinians are treated by official Labour as second-class citizens – not consulted, involved or engaged with. It is difficult to empathise with people you don’t talk to or understand how they feel.

But, apart from the personal, there is a much more fundamental political issue at stake. The basis of UK and Western foreign policy is asymmetrical – it supports Israel at the expense of supporting Palestinian self-determination. If Labour is to have a progressive international foreign policy it has to be on Palestine’s side – on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor, not the occupier.

To support the status quo, after over 70 years of occupation, with military trade, economic aid and favourable trade agreements is to side with Israel in its contempt for international law and Palestinian rights. The motion passed by Conference sets this out, but it will only make the difference it should when it becomes the settled and mainstream view within the Party.

In supporting the motion, the GMB were honest in saying there was some wording in the motion they had not explicitly discussed within their union. There will be other unions and local parties in the same position. The motion is a golden opportunity to trigger a debate and discussion within the Party. Over the last six to nine months a good number of local parties have had discussions on Palestine, often using the model motion circulated by Labour & Palestine – many more have not.

Indeed, some were clearly intimidated by the ‘chilling effect’ within the Party making them reluctant to discuss Palestine for fear that it would be controversial or get them into trouble. Labour & Palestine’s advice has always been to ‘talk about Palestine’, to tell their story – that is what the Palestinians ask us to do. So, let’s use the motion to have a discussion in every Constituency Labour Party. This is not just a ruse to use the motion as cover; it is the best way to take the motion forward: to let every MP know the feeling of the membership on the issue, to make the Party’s parliamentary leadership realise this is not an issue that can be swept under the carpet.

Recognising they would lose both the debate and vote on the issue, the official strategy was obviously to limit debate, minimise attention and pretend it hadn’t happened. Our challenge is to make the reverse true, to make Palestine the issue that won’t go away, to hold the Party accountable for its actions. Drawing on wording from Young Labour, the motion concluded “Conference resolves that the Labour Party must stand on the right side of history and abide by these resolutions in its policy, communications and political strategy.”

At conference we were told it was unfair because we had organised support around the motion. Indeed true, something we intend to carry on doing. It was a strong combined effort involving not just Labour & Palestine, but also lots of CLP’s, Young Labour, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the majority of trade unions – a powerful coalition that needs to be developed and built upon.

The attitude of the official Labour Party is unbalanced: it doesn’t reflect the overwhelming grassroots opinion within the Party, and it is on the wrong side of history. Our challenge is to re-balance it in favour of the indigenous Palestinian people until Israel complies with international law and ends its oppressive apartheid system and settler expansionism.

Hugh Lanning is a former Deputy General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union and was the Labour candidate for Canterbury in the 2015 general election.

Image: Creator: Montecruz Foto, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

ONLINE EVENT: Speaking up for Palestine – next steps after Labour Conference


Thursday, 7th October 2021, 18:30.
Register here // Invite & share here // Retweet here to spread the word

With: H.E Husam Zomlot (Palestinian Ambassador,) Grahame Morris MP, Gemma Bolton (Labour NEC,) Nekisa Gholami-Babaahmady (Young Labour,) Hugh Lanning (Labour & Palestine.)

Discussion on how CLPs can build on the successful passing of Labour’s far-reaching solidarity motion with Palestine at Annual Conference.

#SpeakupforPalestine

Organised by Labour & Palestine. Kindly streamed by Arise – A Festival of Labour’s Left Ideas.

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