David Rose

Lets hope the Conservatives outlaw Israel boycotts by the end of 2023

Michael Gove's BDS bill is expected to be approved with no ‘fundamental changes’, Tory sources say

October 06, 2023 15:04

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway’s comment on going bankrupt, when power drains away from political parties, it does so gradually, then suddenly – on the night of a general election. 

I spent the first three days of this week in Manchester, at the Conservative Party conference, and since my return several people have asked me the same question: “did it feel very subdued?” The answer is yes, it did. 

The Jewish former Tory leader Michael Howard still felt able, in a column for the Daily Telegraph, to warn that the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer “doesn’t know what’s coming”, and that with falling inflation and other economic good news, the election likely to be held next year can still be “won from behind”. 

Most of the Tories I spoke to in Manchester disagreed. Was this conference like that of 1991, the last before what then would have looked an equally improbable victory against Labour’s Neil Kinnock in 1992? Or was it closer to 1996, the gathering followed by Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, which saw the Conservatives excluded from government for the next 13 years? The consensus was: the latter.

In this week’s paper, I report that the government is determined to press ahead with Levelling-Up secretary Michael Gove’s bill that would outlaw economic decisions by publicly-funded bodies in support of the Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment (BDS) campaign against Israel, and hopes to get it on to the statute book without significant changes. To which those of us who support this measure might observe: well, let’s hope they do, because given that Labour is likely to oppose it, it may otherwise be too late.

That conclusion was underlined by a YouGov poll published after the conference, which revealed no sign of a Tory bounce, and Labour maintaining the 21 point-lead it has enjoyed since the brief Liz Truss interregnum last year. 

More important was its “seismic” victory against the incumbent Scottish National Party in the Rutherglen and Hamilton by-election with a 20-per cent swing – suggesting Labour is on course to win at least 20 seats in Scotland, and possibly many more. If this result had come in before, not after the Tory conference, its mood would have been even gloomier.

For Jewish voters, the by-election result has a further significance. The victor, Michael Shanks, had resigned his party membership in 2019 while it was led by Jeremy Corbyn, because he felt “it had become difficult to look my Jewish friends in the eye”. Labour’s handling of antisemitism, he went on, was “woefully inadequate… I know a lot of Jewish people and they were genuinely scared and hurt by the culture that had built up and that wasn’t being tackled by the leadership.”

Shanks rejoined in 2020, after Starmer became leader. Tactfully, he said he understood why some Labour members chose to stay and fight – he didn’t mention it, but in the case of Starmer, a husband and father of Jews, this meant choosing to stay and fight as a member of Corbyn's shadow cabinet, and campaigning for him to become prime minister at the 2019 general election. 

I know what Shanks meant when he said that his Jewish friends were “genuinely scared” by the prospect of a Corbyn victory. I shared that fear, and the flood of relief I experienced when the BBC revealed its exit poll suggesting Labour was on course for defeat was overwhelming. 

I don’t feel frightened now. Of course, there are still individuals inside the Labour Party who harbour antisemitism. But they are fewer in number and politically eclipsed, and they must know by now that if they express antisemitic views, they will face serious consequences. 

Labour’s policy offering is still a work in progress, but barely a week goes by without further evidence of the ruthless grip Starmer and those close to him have on the party machine. 

This week, for example, it emerged that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign was told that its fringe meeting at next week’s Labour conference in Liverpool could not be advertised in the official party programme if its billing included the phrase “end [Israeli] apartheid”.

I’ve little doubt that the biggest crowd of the entire conference fringe will gather at the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) event on Tuesday evening – which will feature speeches from several shadow cabinet members, as well as Israel’s Labour leader, Meyrav Michaeli.

I’ll report back in this space next week. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting the LFI briefing document on what a Labour Middle East policy should look like, which was issued on Thursday and is reported elsewhere on the JC website. 

Unsurprisingly, it includes proposals to re-start the Israel – Palestine peace process. But it gives roughly equal space to analysis of the threat posed by the regime in Iran, and makes strong recommendations for dealing with it – including proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, and going after the assets of UK-based Iranian oligarchs and their families in just the same way as we already do with Russians close to Putin.

Refreshingly, proscribing the IRGC is already Labour policy, and endorsed by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy. Needless to say, under Corbyn, who infamously received £20,000 for appearances on the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV, this would have been unimaginable. Corbyn has defended his appearances and said he used his Press TV role to address ‘human rights issues’ and challenge the repressive regime in Tehran.

Parties don’t just lose power gradually, they gain it too. I have a hunch that the post-conference opinion polls will be a lot more cheery for Starmer than they have been for Rishi Sunak.

October 06, 2023 15:04

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