Labour threatens to reject BDS bill banning Israel boycotts

Lisa Nandy has emailed Labour MPs about Michael Gove's proposed legislation, saying it amounts to an unjustified attack on free speech


LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: Lisa Nandy speaking at a hustings event for Labour Leader and Deputy Leader, hosted by the Co-operative Party, at the Business Design Centre on February 16, 2020 in London, England. Sir Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy are vying to replace Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who offered to step down following his party's loss in the December 2019 general election. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The Labour Party will oppose the new bill that would make it unlawful for councils and other public bodies to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement by severing economic ties with Israel and the Occupied Territories – unless the government accepts an Opposition amendment that would radically weaken its provisions.

The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill introduced by Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove will be given its second reading in the Commons on Monday. Under the proposed legislation, public bodies that impose their own boycotts on foreign government or territories could face heavy fines. 

An email seen by the JC and sent to all Labour MPs by Gove’s shadow, Lisa Nandy, says that Labour has long had “concerns” about BDS, because “it has been used by some to seek to apply a standard to the State of Israel that is not used against other countries”.

BDS, Nandy’s email adds, has been exploited “to whip up hate against the Jewish community in the UK,” and “we do not support action that singles out any one country for different treatment, or any action designed to promote xenophobia and racism of any kind.”

However, the email goes on to say that she considers the bill’s approach to be seriously flawed, claiming it would also prevent attempts to boycott countries such as China for their treatment of its Uyghur minority, and amounts to an unjustified attack on free speech: “We do not believe it is right or practical for councils and other public bodies to be banned from even expressing a view about foreign policy or face penalties.” 

Instead, Labour intends to ask the government to accept a “reasoned amendment” that would allow public bodies to make their own investment and procurement decisions and remove the threat of fines. In their place the amendment – which has yet to be tabled – would seek to ensure that such decisions are “in accordance with an ethical investment framework that is applied equally across the board”.

If the government does not accept this, Nandy’s email says, “I will make clear from the despatch box that we will vote against the bill at third reading if the government is unwilling to adopt our approach during the passage of the Bill through the Commons”.

The email says Nandy realises some Labour MPs support the bill in its present form, but if the party decides to oppose it, there would be a three-line Labour whip. Her message adds: “Those of you who have worked with me through my time as vice chair and chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and as Shadow Foreign Secretary will know that I always keep my word.”

Labour, her email concludes, is against BDS because it does not help the cause of peace through a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But it also stresses that the party is against “the expansion of illegal settlements, settler violence and evictions and demolitions”.

The Bill has divided opinion in the Jewish community. The Jewish leadership Council and other groups have voiced strong support, but several left-wing and youth organisations have voiced strong criticism. 

Approached by the JC for comment, Nandy issued a lengthy statement. She said:

“Labour is opposed to BDS which we believe provides no meaningful route to peace between Israel and Palestine. Our long-standing position on this will not change.

“We recognise the problem the government has committed to solve. We have been sufficiently concerned about the impact on the Jewish Community in the UK that we tabled an amendment to the public procurement bill earlier this year to tackle the problem.

“We also share the concerns raised by MPs of all parties, campaigners and human rights groups that this Bill will have a major impact on groups, such as the Uyghur in Xinjiang and other persecuted groups across the world.

“We are concerned by warnings from council leaders about the impact on local government pension funds and we do not believe it is right or practical for councils and other public bodies to be banned from even expressing a view about foreign policy or face penalties.

“We have offered the government an alternative approach that tackles the problem without these far-reaching consequences. With goodwill and good faith, we believe we can agree an approach that solves many of the problems on the government’s own backbenches and prevents the unintended consequences.”

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