The Labour Party is no friend to the Palestinians
Political party conference season is an important period in British politics. It is when parties interact with the membership, attract media attention, and shape the policy direction and agenda.
In particular, the Labour Party's conference will be observed with eagle eyes this year. It will be the first time party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has the opportunity to properly connect with his base, as his election to the helm in spring of 2020 coincided with the outbreak of Covid-19, which meant largely settling for digital events.
All the commentary in the run-up has hinted that this year will provide the Labour Party and its leader a decisive opportunity to carve out an electrifying agenda and articulate a clear message. Starmer himself outlined that he will use the forthcoming conference to paint "in primary colours" what his vision looks like.
"The party - which under the previous leadership empowered delegates to fill the conference hall with a sea of Palestinian flags, regularly passed motions demanding an end to all arms sales to Israel, and advocated the right of return of Palestinian refugees - is now unrecognizable"
Still, for all the anticipation and expectation, the party’s intentions have already been made unambiguously clear on one policy: When it comes to the Palestinians, there has been a lack of robust care and attention.
The party - which under the previous leadership empowered delegates to fill the conference hall with a sea of Palestinian flags, regularly passed motions demanding an end to all arms sales to Israel, and advocated the right of return of Palestinian refugees - is now unrecognizable. Instead, where there is the slightest trace of solidarity with the Palestinians, a swift dissociation follows.
Starmer has ostensibly become the perpetrator-in-chief of this practice. In late April, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he was invited to an Open Iftar event by the Ramadan Tent Project. Starmer initially accepted the invitation before later rejecting it, upon finding out that one of the event organisers supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
That was not the first time a senior Labour figure brazenly displayed hostility and attempted to invalidate BDS. In November 2020, Labour's shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy explicitly expressed her disapproval of BDS, reiterating, "I have never been actually" when asked if she supports them, before bizarrely claiming "BDS pushes people away."
The stance on BDS by high profile Labour figures is gravely perplexing because it fails to comply with the party's key mantra since it came under new management.
The idea that Labour disenfranchised voters under the previous leadership is a widely held view among the Westminster political and media class, and the alleged remedy is that it must start listening to its voters again. Nandy herself continuously echoed such tendencies, dating back to her leadership bid.
Yet a recent poll by Britain’s data analytics firm YouGov showed that 61% of Labour members support BDS. There are disingenuous signs when Lisa Nandy has no qualms about assuredly dismissing the significance of the movement - even in the face of the hefty support it retains among the party membership - despite claiming that Labour must "listen to what people are trying to tell us."
BDS remains the most potent and realistic form of non-violent activism against Israel's abuses without paying the usual catastrophic human price. Hence, unequivocally denouncing it suggests a lack of comprehension towards the severity of the situation.
"The need for a transparent and firm strategy to stand up to Israel's transgressions has never been more urgent. By all accounts, that remains a tall order for Labour's top team"
This confounding dereliction of duty from a party that is purportedly internationalist and should be demonstrably committed to shielding the oppressed comes at a time when Israel is intensifying its systematic maltreatment of the Palestinians.
In Silwan, properties belonging to Palestinians continue to be demolished, with the aim to displace them in favour of Israeli settlers. In Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian residents are told that to avoid being evicted, they must relinquish any claims of ownership over their homes and become paying tenants to Israeli settlers. The situation in both of the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods is a microcosm of life under Israeli occupation.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, as if the 14-year Israeli-led sea, air and land blockade is not crippling enough, the aggression by Israeli forces on the enclave remains unrelenting. In late August, the Israeli military used tear gas and live fire against protestors near the Israeli separation barrier in the southern Gaza Strip, wounding at least 14 people.
The need for a transparent and firm strategy to stand up to Israel's transgressions has never been more urgent. By all accounts, that remains a tall order for Labour's top team. The foreign shadow secretary recently set out the party's approach on the matter, once again resorting to generic statements about Israel's "right to defend itself" and the party's support for a two-state solution.
On 24 August, merely days before the Labour strategy on the Palestinians was mapped out, the new Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet doubled down on his rejection of the creation of a Palestinian state in an interview with The New York Times. "This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state," he emphasised. Therefore, for Britain’s opposition party to recycle the same outdated soundbites despite Israel's palpable apartheid practices illustrates a profound level of patent blindness to a critical matter.
There also appears a conscious attempt to muzzle any support for the quest for Palestinian liberation within the party. With just a few weeks remaining before the conference began, the Chair of Young Labour, Jess Barnard, revealed that officials from the party hierarchy had not only tried to bar the youth wing of the party from holding their own conference event, but also that any representatives from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) will not be allowed to participate.
The PSC, who have been attending and organising events for several years, likewise issued a statement, detailing the reason they were proscribed was because of the organisation's alleged "controversial" positions. Following strong representations from Young Labour and the PSC, an apology was supplied by the party and the activist organisation was informed that it could attend.
Nevertheless, the party's intent is apparent. The Palestinian matter is seemingly expendable and of little importance. Worse still, this attitude has become the norm of the current Labour leadership's modus operandi.
When Israel was relentlessly pounding Gaza in May, Starmer offered nothing but robotic renditions about the "shocking" situation and the need to "de-escalate tensions". The fact that Labour’s leader is a former human rights lawyer made the perfunctory condemnations all the more depressing, particularly as an investigation by Human Rights Watch concluded that Israel's military onslaught on the strip amounted to war crimes.
Months earlier, the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, a member of the foreign affairs frontbench team, used a House of Commons debate to call for the UK to "ban all products that originate from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories." He also accused Israel of behaviour "tantamount to profiting from the proceeds of crime."
"The evidence to support the assertion that the Labour Party is explicitly anti-Palestinian is increasingly inescapable"
This was not well received by the head of the party. Kinnock apparently crossed an unspoken line by having the temerity to point out that Israel was accumulating profit through its violent and illegal settler programme – a sentiment that corroborates the findings of the United Nations. He was subsequently given a "dressing down" by Starmer, as reported by The Jewish Chronicle.
It is thus unsurprising that several Labour Palestinian members recently wrote a strongly worded letter to the opposition party leader collectively expressing their frustration at what they described as a "hostile environment" they say has engulfed the party. They also point to the alleged censorship on any discussions of the issue of Palestine on the Constituency Labour Party level.
Adding to the letter, Atallah Said, the founder of the group Arab Labour, did not equivocate. Speaking of the party's attitude to the Independent, he claimed, "The message is loud and clear: I don’t care about you or your issues."
The evidence to support the assertion that the Labour Party is explicitly anti-Palestinian is increasingly inescapable.
It was the UK Labour Party that was in government during 1945-1951 when the Israeli state was created on the back of Palestinian ethnic cleansing. The phrase, 'begin as you mean to go on' seems pertinent here. Then, the party made little attempt to defy Israel's colonial domination for the purpose of its establishment. Now, it continues to overlook the violence geared towards its maintenance.
Hamza Ali Shah is a British Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London
Follow him on Twitter: @Hamza_a96
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.