“The best-known boycott was undoubtedly the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. Millions of people in Britain, including many Labour-held local administrations, were part of that movement.”
By Peter Leary
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns provide a peaceful way for ordinary people to push for fairness and equality. They have been used by social movements through history and across the world to pressure regimes, institutions, or companies to change abusive, discriminatory, or illegal practices. Alongside strikes, demonstrations and petitions, BDS campaigns are building blocks of a democratic society. But that tradition of active citizenship is currently under threat.
Trailed in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and again in the Queen’s Speech last year, the Tory government’s so-called ‘Foreign Affairs (Economic Activities of Public Bodies) Bill’, or simply put, the anti-boycott bill, will limit the ability of public bodies to make ethical choices about spending and investment. Although the text of the bill has not yet been published, campaigners understand that this could be imminent. It aims to ban local authorities, universities, and public-sector pension funds from making financial decisions that are influenced by disapproval of the actions of a foreign state. If passed, it will undermine the rights of people in this country to express their widespread support for human rights, climate goals and international law. A broad coalition has formed against this repressive measure. The Labour Party too must take a clear stand in the face of this threat.
Boycott campaigns have long been part of the fabric of democracy. In this way, members of the public have helped to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade, contributed to the struggle for Indian independence, secured their civil rights, and championed equality. The best-known boycott was undoubtedly the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. Millions of people in Britain, including many Labour-held local administrations, were part of that movement, and their contribution to the creation of a democratic South Africa was recognised by anti-apartheid leaders including Nelson Mandela. His statue now stands in Parliament Square and Labour Party members are still justly proud of their role in helping to secure his freedom.
While almost everyone will now accept that those who opposed South African apartheid were right to do so, the Conservative government of the day got it badly wrong. Under Margaret Thatcher, legal restrictions were introduced, in an unsuccessful attempt to stifle these acts of solidarity. Had the anti-boycott bill been in place, it could have forced local authorities and British universities to do business with that brutal and criminal regime. Similar attempts to silence local government – including the notorious ‘Section 28’, which banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ – prove that central government does not always know better than communities and their elected representatives. The public are right not to rely on ministers to uphold ethical standards.
Tory party and official statements, including the recent bilateral ‘roadmap’ agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Israeli administration, indicate that the current anti-boycott bill is aimed at campaigns in support of Palestinian rights. With Israeli policy and violence growing ever more extreme, it is certainly the case that international pressure is essential to protect Palestinian life and international law. As the United Nations has observed, 2022 was the deadliest year since 2006 for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem with Israel’s armed forces having killed no fewer than 170, including more than 30 children. At least one Israeli government minister has described himself as a ‘fascist’, and the mounting human rights consensus confirms what Palestinians have said for years – that Israel too is guilty of the crime of apartheid, as documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own leading rights group B’Tselem. In 2021, Labour Party conference took the ground-breaking step of recognising these findings. It is in this context that the global movement for BDS is growing, in direct response to calls from within Palestinian civil society, and with the aim of pressuring those who are complicit in violations of their rights.
At the same time, other progressive movements who use similar tactics will also be affected by anti-boycott legislation. It could hit campaigns against deforestation, environmental pollution, and the exploitation of children and workers, in countries where these practices are tolerated or endorsed by the authorities. Even those who do not themselves engage in boycotts are alarmed by this attack on democratic rights. That is why over 60 civil society organisations – including trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organisations – have come together to sign the Right to Boycott statement and collectively call on the government to immediately halt this bill, and on opposition parties to oppose it.
The anti-boycott bill threatens to erode local democracy, restrict freedom of expression, and undermine campaigns for social and climate justice. Democratic and civil society groups are standing up. If the Labour Party stands for these principles, and alongside the millions who care deeply about human rights and the environment, then when the anti-boycott bill is tabled – likely the in the coming weeks – abstention should not be an option. Labour must vote against this dangerous bill in parliament and join the many who are saying: ‘Defend the Right to Boycott.’