Stand up for Palestine – and defend the #righttoboycott

By Matt Willgress

As part of the general crackdown on dissent and our right to resist in this week’s Tory Queen Speech, the Government brought forward much anticipated “anti-boycott” legislation, which had already been opposed by 46 civil society groups in anticipation of the announcement.

In particular, the Government is seeking to take away from public bodies “the right to decide not to purchase or procure from, or invest in companies involved in human rights abuse, abuse of workers’ rights, destruction of our planet, or any other harmful or illegal acts.”

The direct nature of this attack on the international “boycott, divestment and sanctions” demands of the movements around the world in solidarity with the Palestinian people is obvious, but of course the nature of the attack stretches far wider than that issue alone.

The coalition of groups opposing this move have said, the anti-boycott presents “an existential threat to freedom of expression, and the ability of public bodies and democratic institutions to spend, invest and trade ethically in line with international law and human rights.”

Additionally, Hugh Lanning of Labour & Palestine commented: “It is a moral and human right to conscientiously object to having my money used to buy or sell or invest in goods and arms being used by Israel to wage war on the Palestinian people. That is why Labour must oppose the Government’s proposed bill to outlaw the right to boycott.”

And as Palestine Solidarity Campaign Director, Ben Jamas put it, “Any restriction of the right to boycott is a restriction of core democratic rights – and the breadth of the groups launching this statement today reflects that. Palestinian rights may be the immediate target – but there can be no doubt that climate justice, human rights and freedom of expression could easily be targeted, as we have seen happen already in the US. Boycotting is a legitimate, historically recognised tactic that has been the engine of great leaps forward for social and international justice. From the formal end of apartheid in South Africa, the repeal of Jim Crow, the divestment from tobacco companies, the list goes on.”

The anti-boycott Bill is in line with the Conservative Party’s last manifesto, which outlined an intention to introduce legislation to prohibit public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycott or divestment campaigns against foreign countries.

Explaining this on a previous occasion, senior Tory Eric Pickles hinted the move would aim to prevent public bodies from working with those who boycott, divest from or sanction Israel. This approach mirrors legislation passed in 35 state legislatures in the US and can be clearly seen as part of wider international attempts to stop the global rise of pro-Palestinian activism.

These latest attacks follow on from the government attempting in 2016 to prohibit Local Government Pension Schemes from divesting from companies complicit in Israel’s violations of international law. On this, the Government faced defeat, with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign mounting a legal challenge,  which ultimately led to the Supreme Court in 2020 finding against the government.

More recently, this February, Tory MP Robert Jenrick introduced an amendment to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill which attached “guidance or directions on investments which it is not proper for pension scheme managers to make in light of UK foreign and defence policy.”  Disgracefully, Labour did not whip MPs to oppose this amendment, which makes it all the more important for Labour activists to now up the pressure on the Front Bench to oppose this wider attack on our right to boycott.

Whether it be the Overseas Operations Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill or the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Tories are again and again attacking our rights, and as a movement we need to stand up to them collectively.

On this note it was particularly welcome for Gail Cartmail, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union to say in supporting the right to boycott statement that “Unite the Union’s members have voted on many occasions over the past decade to participate in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns in the cause of international and social justice, particularly in support of Palestinian justice. As a union with members in public bodies across the country, we strongly oppose this Tory Government’s attempts to deny our members the right to support and participate in these campaigns.”

We need to build on this throughout the trade unions, Labour Party at all levels and beyond, alongside continuing to speak up for Palestine. As part of this, on Saturday supporters of Labour & Palestine will be joining the national demonstration for Palestine and defending our right to boycott will be a central part of continuing to build solidarity with the Palestinian people in the months and years ahead.

Matt Willgress is an activist with Labour & Palestine

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