David Rose

It's almost certain Labour will oppose Michael Gove’s BDS ban

Those who reject it out of hand should, I suggest, be careful what they wish for


LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26: Labour Party Shadow Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary Lisa Nandy speaks on day two of the Labour Party Conference at the ACC on September 26, 2022 in Liverpool, England The Labour Party hold their annual conference in Liverpool this year. Issues on the agenda are the cost of living crisis, including a call for a reinforced windfall tax, proportional representation and action on the climate crisis. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

June 09, 2023 13:10

It now seems almost certain that the Labour Party is going to oppose Levelling-Up secretary Michael Gove’s new Bill to outlaw boycotts of Israel by councils and other public bodies. 

As we report elsewhere, Gove’s shadow, Lisa Nandy, has told the party’s MPs that she has serious “concerns” about the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment) campaign that the Bill is designed to curb.

She says she recognises that BDS often becomes a vehicle “to whip up hate against the Jewish community”, adding that “we do not support action that singles out any one country for different treatment, or any action designed to promote xenophobia and racism.”

So far, so encouraging. But Nandy – who happens to be a former chair of Labour Friends of Palestine – also thinks that Gove’s Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill goes too far. It would, she says, lead to restrictions on free speech, and make it impossible for public bodies to boycott China, in protest at its treatment of its Uyghur minority. 

However, what Nandy appears to dislike most is that the Bill has teeth. It would create powers to levy fines on institutions that make procurement or investment decisions in order to sustain boycotts.

Nandy would prefer to let them continue to make whatever decisions they choose, so long as they do so “in accordance with an ethical investment framework that is applied equally across the board”. 

I’m not quite sure what that means. On Friday, Labour tabled a “reasoned amendment” repeating most of Nandy’s arguments, but this said nothing to explain what this nebulous concept would mean in practice.

But if the government doesn’t accept it at the Bill’s second reading on Monday, Labour will abstain, and then vote against the Bill on a three-line whip when it comes back for its third and final reading.

This isn’t a return to Corbyn-era anti-Zionism. Some or all of Nandy’s views are shared by important sections of the Jewish community: left-wing groups such as Yachad, various youth organisations, including the Union of Jewish Students, and, I am told, influential figures at the Board of Deputies.

The JC’s columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote a powerful critique of the Bill last week, expressing his fear that by singling out Israel and the Occupied Territories as places that should never be boycotted, it will foster antisemitism. 

I’ve heard others I deeply respect raise similar criticisms. But they make me uneasy. 

The first thing to grasp is that although the supporters of BDS exploit the language of liberty and human rights, their campaign is by definition annihilationist. It denies Israel’s right to exist, and explicitly wants to see the Jewish state destroyed.

The BDS co-founder and intellectual guru Omar Barghouti has made this crystal clear. Like the Soviets of the Brezhnev era and their western stooges, he wants a “one state” solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a “democratic secular state” from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea.

He and his movement regard Israel as a “settler colonialist” enterprise that is directly comparable not only to apartheid South Africa, but Nazi Germany. 

Needless to say, all this perfectly conforms to the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of antisemitism. The BDS campaign also rejects all attempts to date to reach a negotiated settlement, and – naturally – the “normalisation” of Israel’s relations with neighbouring Arab countries, as represented by the Abraham Accords. 

Maybe you want your town hall or university leadership to be able to make important financial decisions on the basis of this ideology. Personally, I don’t, and I don’t think allowing it is in anyone’s interest – especially not the Jewish community’s and Israel’s.

On closer scrutiny, some of the criticisms of the Bill look distinctly shaky. Take the claim that it would prevent boycotts of China. At the end of the Bill is a schedule of circumstances in which boycotts would be allowed. Item eight in this list is headed “Labour-related misconduct”.

This isn’t a politicised attack on Nandy and her colleagues, but a statement to the effect that if a country makes slaves of its citizens, as China has with the Uyghurs, then it can be boycotted. Others have argued that the Bill would outlaw boycotts of polluters such as oil firms.

Yet that schedule of exceptions also has a section headed “environmental misconduct”, which says boycotts are permissible if applied to countries or entities that cause, “or have the potential to cause, significant harm to the environment, including the life and health of plants and animals”.

There are some bigger arguments, too. Let’s agree the Bill isn’t perfect. I’m not convinced by the wording of the section that appears to prevent public bodies from expressing support for boycotts even if they aren’t conducting them.

I’m not sure it’s wise to have a law that suggests that Israel and the Occupied Territories can never be exempted from the boycott ban in future, whatever the circumstances.

But one of the prime purposes of the parliamentary process is that legislation can, and almost always is, improved by it. Well-drafted amendments will smooth out the rougher edges of this measure without destroying its essence – that if public bodies are to be prevented from using taxpayers’ funds in support of BDS and other questionable boycott campaigns, then there has to be an effective enforcement mechanism.

As ever, the devil will be in the detail, but I am rather sceptical that Nandy’s “ethical framework applied equally across the board” is going to meet that standard.

In politics as in life, the perfect is the enemy of the good. By all means, highlight the flaws in this Bill, and suggest means of eliminating them. But make no mistake. If you want to defeat BDS, this Bill is the only legislative chance.

It won’t come back if the Tories win the next general election, and if Labour wins, as Nandy has made clear, a measure with enforcement teeth is not on the agenda. Those who reject it out of hand should, I suggest, be careful what they wish for.

June 09, 2023 13:10

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