On Palestine, Labour leadership contenders are failing, once again

Labour leadership contenders throw Palestine under the bus, once again
6 min read
10 Mar, 2020
Comment: When it comes to international solidarity and Palestine, we're seeing a return to the pre-Corbyn status quo, writes Malia Bouattia.
Voting in the race for Labour leadership closes on 2 April [AFP]
The leadership race inside the Labour Party is gathering speed, and it's becoming increasingly clear that Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner will become leader and deputy leader respectively. Both candidates are leading the race in all polls and are doing so with a considerable margin over their closest competition. 

Both left wingers Rebecca Long-Bailey (RLB) and Richard Burgon, who most closely identify with the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, are likely to finish second. As well as signifying an end to the Corbyn-era, given the leader of the opposition will step down in April, this change is also set to represent a fundamental rupture with the last five years in terms of political focus and substance.

Starmer and Rayner are perhaps best understood as the lowest denominator candidates; acceptable to the right of the party without identifying as one of them, and prepared to speak left when needed without taking any action that could destabilise the status quo.

Starmer's continued support for the European Union and a refusal to criticise its anti-worker, anti-migrant regime makes him the perfect candidate for the wing of the party that has remained close to the Blairite project and the defence of liberal institutions.

On the other hand, Rayner's repeated attacks on migrants and other dog-whistle politics such as her critique of what she considers the disproportionate place given to the history of empire in British education, have allowed her to play into the 'blue labour' arguments, while continuing to present herself as to the left of the party. 

Unfortunately, not only are the likely victors of the race taking a decisive turn back towards the right of the party, the Left also is rapidly deserting some of the most important political pillars of the Corbyn era, such as international solidarity and democratisation. The fact, for example, that both RLB and Momentum have endorsed Rayner also points to this broader crisis within the Left. 

Labour's left wing is rapidly deserting some of the most important political pillars of the Corbyn era

A general tendency has set in to lower the political horizons, abandon the sense that the world can change - so central to Corbyn's appeal - and a growing "common sense" within the ranks of the party that their defeat was not the outcome of a failure to deal with Brexit and other political crises in a sharp and decisive way, but was caused instead by too radical a manifesto. 

Two issues have generated near consensus among the candidates, and capture this defeatism sharply: Palestine and party democracy. 

Solidarity with the Palestinian people has been central to the rebuilding of the Left in the UK and internationally since the early 2000s and the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada. Corbyn himself was a visible and continuous presence within social movements that rejected British support for Israeli crimes and settlement.

The same social movements that brought together the older Labour movement and younger activists, the traditional Left, and Muslim communities so often ignored, as well as the demands for justice and accountability at home and international solidarity abroad, also formed the backbone of those who joined the Labour party in their hundreds of thousands since 2015. 

It is therefore particularly painful - and enraging - to watch as nearly all the candidates in the race have decided to throw Palestinians and the thousands across the UK who support their liberation, under the bus.

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All leadership candidates described themselves as Zionist or supporters of the ideology, despite its century of colonial policy, dispossession, and violence meted out against Palestinians.
RLB went as far as to declare that those who compared the structural violence meted against Palestinians by the Israeli state as Apartheid - just like countless academics, internationally renowned South African leaders, and even UN bodies have - to be anti-Semites.

What's more, all prospective leader and deputy leader candidates bar two, Burgon and Dawn Butler, have signed up to the so-called 10 pledges put forward by the Board of Deputies (BoD). These further equate Palestinian solidarity with anti-Semitism, move to impose a singular representation of the Jewish community to the BoD and its allies, and to outsource its disciplinary process on questions of accusations of anti-Semitism.

Given the last five years of relentless weaponisation of this issue by pro-Israel groups and organisations against the Left, Corbyn, and anti-imperialist activists, the collective retreat on this matter can only be read as a direct assault on them.

The candidates have fared no better on learning the lessons of the internal strife the party has experienced. While the it shifted to the Left and elected Corbyn - twice - the Parliamentary Labour Party avoided scrutiny. Right wing MPs remained in power and were able, without consequences, to launch coups against him, smear him in the press, and undermine the party in the public eye.

A general tendency has set in to lower the political horizons

Not one of them faced deselection or accountability to the membership. This made passing policy and running elections incredibly difficult, and effectively impossible to fully operate the political turn that the Corbyn era represented. 

Despite this, Richard Burgon is the only candidate to support mandatory re-selection, which would force MPs to be chosen by their local party members before every election. He is also the only one who, recognising the importance of the massive transformation that the party membership has gone through in recent years, has argued for greater involvement in policy making and - crucially - war making.

The democratic wind that swept through the organisation with the Corbyn election is being pushed out, even by RLB, its only hope for limited continuity at the helm.

These issues are not new. They represent, in a more acute form, problems that persisted throughout the Corbyn years.

On key issues, such as Brexit, anti-Semitism smears, structural racism, Corbyn and his team avoided open confrontation with their MPs and settled for organisational compromise. They hoped that offering clear and positive economic reform to the electorate would allow them to avoid the tough political issues of the period.

Palestine activists for example were left out to dry by the party machine when attacked by the Israel lobby, despite the base of the party pushing for increasingly progressive policy on Palestine in conference votes.

This attempt to find organisational fixes to political questions led Corbynism to fail. It looked unconvincing on anti-Semitism, unclear on Brexit, and potentially dangerous on international issues, not because it was any of these things, but because it refused to fight for a clear and strong political answer to them that people could understand and trust. The radicalism of its economic platform was kept out of its political one.

Today, with the exception of Richard Burgon, the leadership race mirrors this weakness and is allowing it to expand, dramatically.

For those who remain within the organisation, the next few years will need to be one of mobilisation within and without, in a desperate attempt to put the radical reorganisation of society, the refusal of nationalism and oppression, and the understanding that our struggle will be international -or it will not be, back at the centre of a progressive Labour party.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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.