Labour Palestine group comes of age

By Martin Bright, May 17, 2012

On Monday, Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East held its annual parliamentary reception. The usual backbench phalanx was there, including Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burden.

But the organisation has undergone a renaissance under Ed Miliband's leadership. It is no longer the fringe group of the Blair-Brown era. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander and Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan spoke from the platform . Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and Labour rising stars Anas Sarwar and Lisa Nandy were also there, along with former Communities Secretary John Denham. With a few exceptions, this is Ed Miliband's inner circle.

It was a significant moment when Labour backed Palestinian statehood at last year's conference. But many considered it to be a cynical attempt by the leadership to distance itself from New Labour foreign policy. It is now clear that this was a genuine shift.

Manuel Hassassian, the head of the Palestinian General Delegation to London also spoke at the event and is known to be delighted that senior Labour politicians are happy to refer to him as "ambassador". There is a new compact with Labour, which means the Palestinian delegation is no longer at the mercy of fringe politicians and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

There was a time when an ambitious young member of the Labour Party was well-advised to join Labour Friends of Israel but from Monday's turnout it is now clear that Labour Friends of Palestine is the place to be seen.

Should supporters of Israel be worried? It is now 18 months since Ed Miliband became Labour leader and a shift in foreign policy priorities hinted at during his leadership acceptance speech has now established itself. Miliband is not Tony Blair but neither is he viscerally hostile to Israel, as his speech to Labour Friends of Israel earlier this year demonstrated.

Sunder Katwala, head of the British Future think tank and former general secretary of the Fabian Society has long argued that Labour politicians should agree to address meetings of LFI and LFPME only if they are held jointly. We are not quite in this utopian territory yet, but as LFPME enters the mainstream of Labour politics, supporters of Israel within the party will have to reassess their relationship to this increasingly influential group.

Last updated: 10:55am, May 23 2012