We need to defend our right to boycott from the Tory attacks, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE
SOME of the proudest moments in the British labour movement’s history have been acts of international solidarity.
Whether it be NHS staff in Portsmouth refusing to handle supplies from apartheid South Africa or workers at Rolls-Royce’s East Kilbride factory putting a stop to work on engines used by the Pinochet regime in Chile (as featured in Felipe Bustos Sierra’s fantastic documentary film, Nae Pasaran), those who took part not only had a sense of obligation to stand up for just causes but an understanding that all those fighting for a better world have a shared interest in sticking together and supporting each other in whatever ways we can.
This was something I tried to uphold during my time in elected office.
Whenever we took initiatives like twinning with Managua in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and their elected government against the vicious US-backed reactionaries of the Contras, hosting those speaking up for peace and justice in Ireland, declaring London a city of peace in response to the Iraq war, or pushing for the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, we were met with a predictable backlash from right-wing figures in the Conservative Party and the press (and sometimes figures a bit closer to home!), who predictably accused us of pursuing “hard-left hobby horses” as opposed to addressing the issues facing London.
Of course, it was always nonsense to suggest that doing these things somehow stopped us from delivering for residents — indeed, at the same time we did them we were implementing pioneering policies in relation to areas such as public transport and social equality (virtually all of which were opposed by the same people who decried our international stances and said we should focus on local issues).
But the actions were also supported by huge numbers of ordinary Londoners, who were proud to see their city speak loudly and clearly against injustice across the world.
The idea that foreign affairs should be the preserve of jingoists in Parliament and Establishment media pundits has always been patronising rubbish.
As with most progressive traditions in Britain, this kind of internationalism is coming under increasing attack.
We’ve already seen Palestine solidarity targeted — with Tory MP Robert Jenrick having publicly declared last year that the government intends to implement an “absolute ban on BDS” (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign set up to protest against Israel’s occupation).
Indeed, Jenrick subsequently tabled an amendment in Parliament on the investments of public pension funds, which passed with government support.
In his speech, he argued that his proposals “should merely be the beginning of a wider effort to tackle BDS within the public sector,” and said he hoped that a “BDS Bill” would follow.
This direction should be concerning in and of itself to the left, and any sincere democrat.
But the threat goes beyond BDS and Palestine campaigning. Jenrick’s amendment stated that those running public-sector pension schemes “may not make investment decisions that conflict with the UK’s foreign and defence policy.”
As well as being a chilling clampdown on the principle of a right to peaceful dissent, this is particularly alarming when we consider the reality of Britain’s foreign policy — such as illegally selling weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in its war on Yemen (which, according to conservative estimates, has killed tens of thousands of civilians).
Lamentably (if not unsurprisingly, given their overall political orientation) the present leadership of the opposition opted to abstain on this amendment.
But credit should go to the 22 Labour representatives who voted against it, with MP for Leeds East Richard Burgon arguing: “Given that future governments might decide to support regimes that abuse trade unionists — for example, as we have seen in Colombia in recent years, or in Chile in the past — the new clause would be not only anti-democratic but would risk ethical investment decisions and human rights policies around the world.”
And the government shows no signs of stopping there — with a wider “anti-boycott Bill” strongly rumoured to be imminent.
If the Tories are so concerned about states being financially targeted, I’d suggest they start by returning the billions worth of Venezuelan gold outrageously held by the Bank of England, despite a request for its return more than three years ago by the country’s sovereign government.
Their opposition to boycotting also seems curiously absent when it comes to Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian tennis players at this year’s tournament — including those who have publicly displayed their opposition to the current war in Ukraine.
In practice, this legislation is not about the rights or wrongs of boycotting as a tactic but about squashing any kind of practical measures which do not go along with the foreign policy agenda of the British government and the Establishment they operate in the interests of.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see a broad coalition of trade unions, international solidarity campaigns, faith groups, environmental organisations and more come together to launch a statement opposing the government’s plans.
In a world with all too many examples of injustice and oppression, all of us should defend the right to help do our part in helping address them — especially given how little the people running this country can be trusted not to worsen, let alone improve any situation!
Support the Right to Boycott campaign at righttoboycott.org.uk.