On December 12 the British public will go to the polls for one of the most polarizing elections in a lifetime. On one side will be the incumbent Conservative party of the empire apologist and serial womanizer Boris Johnson. On the other side is the Labour party led by the septuagenarian jam maker Jeremy Corbyn. Since his shock promotion to leader of the party leader in 2015, and even more surprising election result in 2017 (reducing the Conservative majority to a hung parliament) Corbyn’s domestic policy has been defined by a commitment to more public spending and a pledge to decarbonize the economy by 2030.
Corbyn has some of the most progressive views of any European politician when it comes to Palestine – and he now stands close to becoming PM of the United Kingdom, a UN Security Council member. His success partly rests on the vitality of the hundreds of thousands young people who came of age in the aftermath of the Iraq war and during the financial crisis of 2008. The combination of this foreign policy disaster and economic depression made them prime supporters for the antiwar and anti-austerity candidate Jeremy Corbyn. What has not often been commented upon however is the ability for Corbyn’s Labour party to locate Palestine as a moral foreign policy cause of this generation and affix it to their material fight against neoliberal austerity. Indeed, the genealogy of this relationship lies in the radical street politics of the British student movement between 2008-2011.
The roots of the contemporary British student movement for Palestine can be found in the 2009 protests against Israel’s brutal invasion of the Gaza strip in January of that year. Over 20,000 protestors marched on the Israeli embassy in London which was heavily guarded by mounted police whose reaction to the mostly Arab and Muslim protestors was brutal. Over the ensuing weeks a seismic shift began to take place vis-à-vis university students position on Palestine – it was becoming a central issue of campus activism. This new cause found a praxis through the 1960s protest tactic of occupations.
On 13 January 2009, students of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London occupied the Brunei gallery issuing a list of demands in connection to the war on Gaza and the universities connection to the arms trade sparking a wave of similar actions across the country. By March 6th, at least twenty-seven UK University campuses had held occupations, from Plymouth on the south coast to Cardiff in Wales and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Student demands from occupation to occupation varied, but they often included the call for educational scholarships for Palestinian students, expressed support for Palestinian students right to education and calls for boycotts of Israeli goods, granting much needed boon to the emerging BDS movement in the UK.
The achievements of the occupation extended well beyond the concessions secured in relation to the students immediate demands. The techniques and skills students built during the occupations for Gaza would be central for the student movements role in spear heading the anti austerity movement in the UK. Just a year after the occupations, young people across Britain were in revolt again enacting a wave of occupations and protests, finding their voice in the power of a new mass movement of the 2010/2011 student protests. The Gaza occupations trained the future foot soldiers in frontline direct-action tactics which would form the spearhead of the anti-austerity movement. Although the student component of this movement was unsuccessful in its goal of preventing the trebling of tuition fees, many of those who were involved graduated from University with the injustices of Palestine and neoliberal restructuring emblazoned on their minds as they stepped out into the world. Furthermore, the introduction of Palestine into the consciousness of the student movement resulted in wave after wave of BDS successes on campuses with deeper calls for decolonized curriculums and a positioning of Palestine as fundamental to progressive student politics. In 2017 an Al Jazeera undercover reporter known as “Robin” covertly filmed a senior official from the UK’s NUS conspiring to oust the organizations president Malia Bouattia through conversations with individuals in the Israeli embassy. Bouattia was the first Muslim, woman NUS president and is a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights and her success in the NUS elections as a vocal supporter of BDS is testament to the lasting saliency of Palestine for students.
Since his election in 2015 Corbyn has been subject to coups from the right wing of the party and a concerted campaign of vilification by the Westminster lobby press and commentariat. According to reports by Middle East Eye, Corbyn and his leftist anti-imperialist faction of the party has not been spared the clandestine activity of Israeli diplomats. Recordings seen by the online news source stipulate that Israeli diplomats have actively sought to establish organizations and youth groups to promote Israeli influence within the Labour party and undermine Corbyn’s leadership. With little friends in the mainstream media or the corridors of power in Westminster, Crobynism has relied on the grassroots energy of Momentum which has played a crucial role in propelling the Labour party to 480,000 members and consistently aided in maintaining the core values of the current Labour party are brought to doorsteps across the country – many of Momentums key strategists are drawn from the ranks of the class of 2010/2011 student movement.
Brexit, a potentially asymmetric trade deal with the US, the National Health Service, falling living standards and the environment will dominate this UK election. However, the Labour party’s positioning on Palestine will also be a major factor within its foreign policy platform. During the 2018 Labour Party conference, the delegation hall was filled with Palestinian flags waved enthusiastically by members. During a course of a debate concerning the Palestinian right of return, Colin Monehan, an impassioned CLP member from East London, stated in a thick cockney accent:
“In 1948 the Palestinian people suffered the tragedy of the Nakba, when the majority of Palestinian people were forcibly displaced from their homes and there has to be a recognition of that. That tragedy that the Palestinians suffered cannot be written out of history, it cannot be downplayed and it must not be ignored”
The party conference voted overwhelmingly in support of the right of return and a complete block on arms sales to Israel. It was the Labour party which oversaw the Nakbah, over eighty years later they have an historic opportunity begin the slow process of addressing their complicity in this calamity. However, if a Labour government is to be part of a just solution and a lasting peace, it must locate and in turn center its most critical and indefatigable voices on Palestine. More often than not these are found strategizing on University campuses and on the front lines of British taking the fight for Palestine to the streets.