The left’s best weapon

Johnson is going down, and wants to take the left with him.

The left’s best weapon
Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955, the 13-month Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, USA ended with the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. Credit: Zinn Educational Project

You don’t have to go all the way to South Africa to see how boycotts advance social justice. In April 1963, Bristolians began a boycott of the council-run Bristol Omnibus Company (BOC), after those of its workers who belonged to the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) voted that racialised people could not be employed in bus crews. The Bristol bus boycott gathered such support that organisers claimed none of the city's Black population used the buses for its duration; local MP Tony Benn vowed to stay off buses until the colour bar was repealed. In the end, the boycotters won. On 28 August 1963 – the same day Martin Luther King Jr told the crowds in Washington that he had a dream – the bus company relented, and Black Bristolians were admitted to the bus crews once more.

The history of British boycotts stretches much further than 1963. Almost exactly a century earlier, workers in Lancashire refused to touch raw cotton picked by enslaved people in the US. Almost two-thirds of Lancashire’s looms laid idle, leading to starvation, poverty and riots but still, the boycotters were undeterred. Another century before this, hundreds of thousands of people across the country – including around 20% of the population of Manchester – vowed to boycott sugar produced by enslaved people in the West Indies in 1788. Sales halved.

Boycotts have a rich history in Britain and beyond – because they work. The term “boycott” comes from 19th-century Ireland when Charles Boycott, an agent for absentee English landlords who had come to own large swathes of the country, refused to lower the rent for local Irish residents after a bad harvest. Within days, the local postman, blacksmith and other shopkeepers refused to sell to Boycott or his associates. In 1965, Mexican and Filipino farmworkers in California went on strike for close to five years; the so-called Delano grape strike was reinforced by a hugely successful consumer boycott of non-union grapes, and eventually led to the creation of the United Farm Workers Union. Half a century later, in an increasingly unequal and overheating planet, boycotts remain an essential component of the tactical repertoire of movements advancing social justice.

In the coming days, the Conservatives are set to publish the first draft of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) bill. The bill aims to end the campaigning that is increasingly gaining traction for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against the state of Israel due to its apartheid policies and ongoing violations of international law. The bill would prohibit public bodies such as schools or local authorities from engaging in boycotts. The logic, according to the Queen’s Speech, is to “stop public bodies pursuing their own foreign policy agenda with public money”. The BDS bill did not come out of nowhere.

Instead it is the culmination of an anti-BDS offensive spearheaded by the Israeli Government. In 2016, following the upsurge of support for BDS after 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan came to Britain to discuss how the countries might cooperate to “battle the boycott and delegitimization in every arena.” The BDS bill is exactly the kind of thing Erdan had in mind.

The BDS bill comes off the back of three major wins for the pro-Palestine movement. First, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s victory in the Supreme Court in April 2020 against regulations that would have prevented pension schemes from divesting from companies complicit in Israeli apartheid. Second, the pro-Palestinian protests of May 2021, which saw 180,000 in London and many tens of thousands across the country. Third, the success of Palestine Action in forcing Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems to close two sites after a relentless campaign of direct action costing the organisation millions.

These three wins have happened in the context of a growing consensus – affirmed by Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch and Israeli NGO B’Tselem, and the Palestinian human rights community for decades – that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid as defined in international law. Yet increasing support for Palestinian emancipation has prompted an inevitable reaction, leading to defenders of Israeli apartheid to propose increasingly authoritarian measures.

Of course, this authoritarianism extends far beyond the right to boycott. At every turn, the government – sensing an upswell of popular resistance – is clamping down on dissent. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has given the police powers to effectively prohibit political protest at their discretion. The British Bill of Rights proposes to scrap the Human Rights Act. Meanwhile, plans are in the works to ramp up the Islamophobic Prevent strategy. Set in this context, the BDS bill is just another attack on our civil liberties.

The government claims that the bill is necessary to combat anti-semitism and prevent divisive behaviour that undermines community cohesion. This rhetoric of community cohesion is the same deployed in the Prevent strategy, now one of the state’s most powerful tools to clamp down on social movements, particularly those for Palestinian liberation. It also recalls the language of “challenge hate” used in the Online Safety bill, which campaigners have warned will chill free speech online. We should all want to foster positive community relationships, but this can’t be done by clamping down on political dissent.

Worse still, these authoritarian bills among which the BDS bill numbers individualise the notion of harm, privileging interpersonal harm over structural violence. This sleight of hand – of both severing acts of racism from the Government’s role in fomenting them and then by granting the government power to determine what constitutes racism on their terms, is cynical, dangerous, and a disavowal of decades of antiracist struggle in this country. Those peddling the narrative that the bill “undermines community cohesion” grant the government the licence to adjudicate over what resistance will and won’t permit.

Combatting the massive and manifold injustices in our society requires broad coalitions. The BDS bill is designed to prevent just this, to fragment our movements by alienating Jewish people from the left. As more and more people are won over to progressive causes amidst a convergence of crises – housing, climate, cost of living – the BDS bill is designed to puncture this atmosphere of solidarity and deprive us of an effective weapon in one fell swoop. We have no choice but to resist.

In February this year – following the addition of the Jenrick amendment to the Pensions bill, prohibiting local government bodies from making decisions which don't align with UK foreign policy – dozens of civil society organisations released a statement defending the right to boycott. The breadth of its signatories – from Palestinian solidarity groups to climate and anti-war activists – reflected an awareness of the wide-reaching implications of the BDS bill (in the US, anti-BDS laws have been rapidly expanded to prohibit the boycotting of firearms and fossil fuel companies).

By vocally organising on antiracist principles and through drawing together broad-based coalitions, grassroots campaigns like BDS are safeguards of strong, democratic and equitable societies against racist and repressive governments. At times like this, they are more vital than ever. Because whether it's blocking an immigration raid in Peckham or boycotting Israeli settlement goods, our power lies in solidarity. ▼

Ilyas Nagdee is co-author of Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism, published in June by Pluto Press.