Jess Barnard, Labour NEC and former Young Labour Chair

We must challenge the authoritarian clamp down on the Right to Boycott – Jess Barnard


“This a bill that effects everyone, all of our rights, our rights to protest, to organise, to demand better. Every voice across civil society should be united against this bill.”

By Jess Barnard

The government’s anti-boycott bill threatens to erode local democracy, restrict freedom of expression, and completely undermine campaigns for social and of course for climate justice.

A huge coalition of nearly 70 civil society organisations made up of trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, and solidarity organisations are calling on MPs to reject this dangerous bill in parliament. Boycott and divestment have long been used to campaign peacefully for progressive change in this country and around the world. They are important tools for accountability and core elements of freedom of expression, which should be protected in a democratic society.

The government has claimed that the bill is motivated by “concerns that such boycotts may legitimise and drive antisemitism as these types of campaigns overwhelmingly target Israel.” These claims are wrong and intended to stoke fear and division. Any boycott discriminating against a section of the community would already be illegal under equalities laws. The call for BDS is a call that has come from Palestinian civil society and aims to pressure those complicit with violations of their rights.

It is ludicrous to suggest that antisemitism is caused by divestment from companies involved in breaches of international law. And that is what this is. Such rhetoric draws a false equivalence between Jewish people and the policies of the state of Israel and treats Palestinians by a different standard to any other group.

There is a long and proud tradition of BDS campaigns, including the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, to protest against a company’s refusal to employ Black or Asian bus crews, the campaign by women in Britain to reject sugar produced on slave plantations during the nineteenth century, and divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Millions of people in Britain, including many local authorities and universities, were part of the boycott movement to end apartheid and the contribution to the creation of a democratic South Africa was celebrated by anti-apartheid leaders including Nelson Mandela.

At the time, similar restrictions were introduced in an unsuccessful attempt to stifle these acts of solidarity. Had the anti-boycott bill been in place, it would have forced public bodies to do business with that brutal, racist, and criminal regime. We all know how wrong this would have been.

This a bill that effects everyone, all of our rights, our rights to protest, to organise, to demand better. Every voice across civil society should be united against this bill.

Worryingly, we have heard reports that Labour are planning to abstain at the second reading of this bill and that there will be a three line whip impost on MPs over this bill. That means that MPs may be threatened with losing the labour whip if they oppose this bill.

So what can you do today? Three things:

  1. Help us Defeat this bill – go to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website, sign the petition and contact your local MP urging them to reject this bill
  2. While this is a terrible bill, it does not stop us collectively as individuals participating in boycotts against the private sector, for example targeting banks – join those campaigns and show you wont be deterred by this legislation
  3. Thirdly, speak up as labour members make clear you support boycotts, and that you expect the Labour party to defend our civil liberties against this deeply authoritarian and far right conservative legislation.
WATCH: Jess Barnard’s passionate plea to oppose the Tory Anti-Boycott Bill at the closing rally of Arise Festival on June 28th, 2023.

  • This article is reproduced from Jess Barnard’s contribution to the Arise Festival closing rally: ‘Strike Back Against the Tories and Profiteers – Fight for a Socialist Future’ held on June 28th, 2023. You can watch or listen to the full event.
  • Jess Barnard is a members’ representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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Jess Barnard, Labour NEC and former Young Labour Chair
Featured image: Jess Barnard, members’ representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee and former Young Labour Chair.

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