Marcus Dysch

Why Labour’s policy on boycotting Israel is more confusing than Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow cabinet may know the official stance, but they do not seem entirely clear on how the policy should be implemented

December 14, 2017 15:10

What is Labour’s policy on a boycott of Israel? Don’t know?

You’re in prominent company, because while Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, and his shadow cabinet members may know the official stance, they do not seem entirely clear on how the policy should be implemented.

The efforts this week of Kate Osamor, the Shadow International Development Secretary, have thrown further confusion on the matter.

Her tweeting of a pro-BDS group’s call for sanctions on Israel led to the issue being raised on Wednesday afternoon during the post-Prime Minister’s Questions lobby briefing by Mr Corbyn’s spokesman.

It began with a reporter asking: “Is it Labour Party policy to support a complete boycott of all Israeli goods?”

The spokesman replied: “No. Any front-bencher saying so is breaching party policy. It is not our policy to support a blanket policy of BDS.

“The party policy is clear however… the party for example has welcomed the EU ruling on labelling of settlement goods and there are different actions can be taken to put pressure on breaches of international law such as illegal settlements and that falls under a different category to blanket BDS.”

Any clearer? A bit. But then the briefing continued with a back and forth debate on what exactly Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader, had in the past said about boycotts before the press pack moved on to Mr Corbyn’s position.

Does the leader support the BDS movement?

No, said the spokesman, “Jeremy… is not in favour of a comprehensive or blanket boycott”. He went on to make clear that Mr Corbyn “does not support BDS” but does back “targeted action aimed at illegal settlements in occupied territory”.

Asked whether Mr Corbyn would himself buy Israeli goods, the spokesman hesitantly replied, “er, yes”.

When the conversation moved on to Ms Osamor’s position, the press were told that Mr Corbyn was not “disappointed” by her apparent opposition to Labour policy, because “people take different positions on certain issues”.

So there was no concern about contravention of the leader’s views, because “occasionally on issues there is some variance in position”.

When the spokesman was urged to consider the fact that her brief – as Shadow International Development Secretary – means the policy area comes partially under her remit, there was further fudge, ending simply with the repeated line “party policy is clear”.

Mr Corbyn had not spoken to his colleague about the issue, as far as the spokesman knew, but that could change.

Then things got a bit ridiculous. One journalist put forward this fair summing up: “Well, Jeremy’s position is that he does not support BDS, the party position is they do not support BDS, Kate Osamor’s position is different. Is Jeremy comfortable with that? Are front-benchers expected to follow party policy?”

The spokesman replied: “Yes.”

The ensuing debate on collective responsibility took in the obvious fact that the leader’s office was not imposing the policy, a bit of pondering on why Ms Osamor had not been sacked, and some musing on the “hypothetical” case of how far a shadow minister would need to “stray” from shadow cabinet policy before Mr Corbyn might have a word, and indeed dismiss someone.

That section of the briefing culminated with the spokesman, perhaps sensibly, declining to get into what might happen if there was a free vote for Labour MPs in the Commons on whether Britain should pursue a BDS policy.

The best – or worst? – was saved for last though. When asked whether membership of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign – which backs BDS – had been banned for shadow ministers, the spokesman said “no”.

So you can be a member of the shadow cabinet, which is opposed to BDS, and of the PSC, which backs it.

That point prompted the rather daft – although who could blame the spokesman by this point – response: “I am sure members of the shadow cabinet are members of the National Trust and the National Trust might have policies not necessarily in line with Labour party policies…”

His comment was met by laughter from the press pack and an agreement that “we are not going to get any clarity here” before the topic moved on to the rather less complicated issue of Brexit.

But I suspect the matter of Israel boycotts will not simply go away for Labour.

The obvious point that no one raised during the briefing was that of Mr Corbyn’s own position – he remains, of course, a patron and leading supporter of the PSC.

So is he not technically in breach himself of the party policy himself? No wonder he cannot discipline Ms Osamor.

If you were not clear on where Labour stands on this issue before, you sure as hell won’t be now.

Shambolic? Not half.

December 14, 2017 15:10

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