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Labour and Palestine – when is a whip not a whip

Picking a fight with one of yxbrh_Recognisepalestinepicour party’s most powerful lobbies is a risky affair. When so doing having a clear objective in mind helps, as well as a strategy that shows off your leadership virtues. Think Tony Blair and the unions. Think – yes – Dave and equal marriage. Which brings us to the curious case of the vote for Palestinian recognition due to come before the Commons tomorrow afternoon.

Originally, Ed Miliband had instructed the whips office to issue a three-liner commanding Labour MPs to turn out and support Britain’s acceptance of Palestinian statehood. Unfortunately, things went awry after several shadow cabinet members made their opposition known. Now instead we have the fudge. Labour MPs will be expected to vote for the unamended motion, but only if they can be arsed to turn up. A shambles, in other words. Or is it?

Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) are but one arm Israel and its sympathisers make its influence felt in British politics. Again, this has nothing to do with conspiracy theorising. Like all wealthy states Israel expends resources pushing its interests in friendly states. Britain and the USA do exactly the same. In the Labour Party itself, LFI cultivates links between labour movement organisations and individual politicians with their Israeli counterparts. It is a well-funded, well-connected lobby organisation attractive to genuine sympathisers and careerists alike. Its event at party conference is always one of the best attended along with, ironically, Labour Friends of Palestine.

LFI commands the affiliation of a good chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party, notably Chris Bryant, Luciana Berger, Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy, Rachel Reeves and John Woodcock. Had Ed persisted with the three-line whip he would face the prospect of losing several shadow cabinet members. When one trump card Labour has over the Tories is unity, a public scrap about an issue that is not a core concern of the electorate in general might not turn out to be “helpful“.

Of course, the Palestinian vote sans the wrecking amendment deserves to be supported. Israel’s summer massacre showed the world a cynical political elite maintaining the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza to pretend Israeli Jews still face an existential threat. If you can terrify a populace, otherwise rancid politics gets a free pass as long as it pretends to be most serious about “security”. A lasting peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority raises the prospect of “normal” politics and limited room for hysterical, populist manoeuvres. If Britain, as one of Israel’s most loyal arms suppliers and backers on the international stage, recognise the Palestinians it is a foreign policy defeat for Netanyahu and his odious cronies. Instead of talking about peace while shelling civilian population centres, they might have to start taking it a bit more seriously.

It’s the right and good thing to do. What about the real reasons? It’s easy points among soft left-liberal voters who might have their heads turned by a growing and nominally left-er Green Party. But this is about internal matters. In making their discomfort known, in the medium term Reeves, Berger and Murphy will be for the chop. Westminster watchers will recall the shadcab reshuffle a year ago. Then Jim Murphy was chopped for being indiscreet about his desire to bomb Syria. Also getting the heave ho were Diane Abbott and Chris Williamson for venturing criticisms during that summer’s recess. Only Andy Burnham got away with it, not least helped by his popularity among party members. By putting this issue out there Ed has flushed out some potential opposition. And by coming out a bunch of cards are now marked. Upon the next reshuffle, demotion and the back benches await.

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