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Sunday, 7 February 2010

Palestine Solidarity Campaign - Beyond Salvaging?

AGM 2010 Report

Socialist Action Uses Every Device to Retain Control

Palestine Solidarity Campaign's Conference will be seen as a watershed, the year that the organisation surrendered its last vestige of independence as the Socialist Action retained its control of the organisation. SA have effectively handed the trade union bureaucracy a veto over the organisation’s policy and campaigning work in the unions.

The key debate this year, like last year, was over breaking links with Histadrut, Israel’s racist settler ‘union’. Unlike last year, trade union officer Bernard Regan did not pretend that our disagreements were only tactical. Now Bernard was honest about his and Socialist Action’s position.

According to Bernard Regan, Histadrut was all the things we said it was historically but from the 1990’s it became a different animal. Because of the monetarist Stabilisation Pact in Israel and Histadrut’s loss of its position as the second largest employer in Israel, most of its industry having been privatised, it is no longer the same creature.

It is true that today Histadrut is but a shadow of its previous self. Membership has dropped to less than 700,000, a loss of more than a million workers. It has shed most of its Arab members, since it no longer runs Kupat Holim, the health service, their only reason for joining.

But this is not a change of substance. At best it has become a more genuinely racist settler union for Israeli Jewish workers. It has never opposed the occupation of the West Bank/Gaza and its former General Secretary, Amir Peretz, as Defence Minister, launched the Lebanon invasion of 2006. Yes it has even agreed to organise migrant labour, but that is because of international pressure, and its base still demands their expulsion to create 'Jewish' jobs. It still supports replacing Arab with Jewish labour on the pretext that the latter have served in the army. In other words, its Zionist character hasn’t changed.

The question David Baker from Brighton PSC and I asked was whether or not we would have supported the TUC linking up with white trade unions in South Africa. Unsurprisingly we got no answer.

But TUC leaders are notorious for not wanting to upset the apple cart. They are member of the International Trade Unions Confederation, of which Histadrut is a member. They don’t want to introduce this kind of controversy into relations with other trade union bureaucracies. It would also be seen to be at odds with British Foreign Policy on Israel and the TUC's own support for a 2 State solution. So PSC has accepted a faustian pact. In exchange for money from unions like UNISON and a ‘Boycott’ campaign by the TUC, which so far consists of joint postcards from PSC and the TUC to MPs, PSC will refrain from mentioning the word ‘Histadrut’.

All Palestinian grassroots organisations, including the Palestinian campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Palestinian trade union PGFTU, support a Boycott of Histadrut. When representatives of Sawt el-Amel, a Palestinian workers organisation inside Israel, came to Britain last year, they made it clear that they supported cutting links with Histadrut, which is rightly seen as collaborating in their oppression.

For Bernard Regan and Socialist Action to now give a stamp of approval to Histadrut is to scab on Palestinian workers inside Israel. They prefer to appease right-wing British trade union leaders who give lip-service to the Palestinian struggle rather than to get them to live up to their rhetoric. For the sake of preserving their control of PSC, trade union money and their jobs, Socialist Action has stabbed Palestinian workers in the back by in effect endorsing Histadrut.

Hugh Lanning, the Deputy General Secretary of the civil service union PCS chaired the conference quite disastrously. He gave every impression of not being a well person and this, it seems, compounded his already bureaucratic ailments. So when it came to a vote, because of the worry of PSC Executive as to how the vote would go, Lanning decided to engage in a traditional bit of vote fixing and gerrymandering.

There were 2 motions. One from 2 trade union executive members – John McGee of the FBU and Kevin Courtney of the NUT – did nothing except praise PSC Executive for winning its position at TUC Congress. The other, from Brighton PSC moved by David Baker, called for the cutting of links with Histadrut. Lanning ruled that if the relatively uncontroversial Motion 2 was passed Motion 3 fell. This was a quite outrageous manoeuvre but challenging the chair requires a 2/3 majority and in the event PSC Conference demonstrated its normal deference by voting against the challenge by 138 to 89 votes.

But in another example of where its real politics lie, the Executive sought remittance of an amendment moved by myself and Roland Rance condemning the apartheid treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, attacks on the unemployed, primarily Arab workers subject to Wisconsin-style workfare schemes, and the attempts to substitute Jewish for Arab workers. Opposition to accepting this, we thought uncontroversial, amendment, demonstrates where the real politics of Socialist Action lie. Two States is their only solution and that means accepting Israel like it is. In reality PSC has all but abandoned the Palestinian diaspora and those living inside the Israeli state.

This is the only explanation for their refusal to utter one word of criticism of the Palestinian Authority. An invitation was extended to their representative in London Prof. Manuel Hassassian, to speak to the conference (last year he wasn’t invited). No mention was made of the PA withdrawing a motion endorsing the Goldstone Report from the UN Human Rights Committee. PSC Executive likewise had nothing to say about Egypt’s iron wall on Gaza’s southern border or Abbas's explicitly endorsement of this last week. To criticise the quisling Abbas would mean accepting that the whole of the Oslo process has been a disaster for the Palestinians and that what we now face now is a one state solution. PSC executive know full well that the diplomatic route to Palestinian self-determination is now a dead-end. The question is whether Palestinians have equal political and civil rights with Israeli Jews or not.

The agenda was stuffed with speakers. Some like the main speaker Mustafa Berghouti were very interesting as was Mark Serwotka’s description of his visit to Palestine. Rodney Bickerstaffe and Victoria Brittain were there to waste time that could have been used for policy formation.

Because of the Executive’s submission of a wide variety of constitutional amendments coupled with the plethora of speakers and late starting, Conference ran out of time in the afternoon. The only other debate was on students. The main Executive motion was from Fiona Edwards, the new student officer, who just happens to be the key activist in the vanishing Student Broad Left front of Socialist Action. She took over from Bryoni Shanks, SBL’s failed candidate in last year’s National Union of Students elections. Making up a triumvirate there is the Campaigns worker, Ruqqiah Collector, who just happens to have been SBL’s last member of NUS Executive and someone who has done precious little in terms of campaigning work.

The motion pointed out that the Zionist Union of Jewish Students has virtually a monopoly over NUS policy on Palestine with NUS supporting Israel’s attack on Gaza. Yet Edwards objected to this too! All mention of Action Palestine, the main group behind the occupation of some 40+ colleges and universities last year was omitted from SA’s history of the student movement. I was even accused of ‘red-baiting’ and McCarthyism for telling the truth i.e. pointing out that SA is a secretive freemasons style group that operates to obtain jobs and perks for its members.

SA do seriously believe that if you oppose them you are engaging in McCarthyism, though quite what the comparison is with the executed Rosenbergs r the travails of Pete Seeger is a mystery! Anne Grey, who was a member of PSC Executive many years ago with me, intervened in the debate to point out how ludicrous the charge of McCarthyism was and Martin Sullivan of West Midlands pointed out that the Conference was more a sea of grey than the youthful. The contrast between the vacuous rhetoric of Fiona Edwards and the reality of Conway Hall could not have been more marked.

Bernard Regan even stood up and asked me to withdraw the amendment, which I refused. It would have of course have made life easier but the choice - to speak the truth or withdraw the motion - was never an option. As I said in my speech, PSC has effectively sub-contracted its work to the student wing of Socialist Action. And given that SBL is the weakest left faction inside NUS that is not a very smart thing to do.

After the conference ended a woman came up to me from the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign to say that Socialist Action was doing the same in that group and it was now in danger of failing altogether as a result of this parasite having latched onto it.

Socialist Action’s method is to talk up any successes and gloss over any failures. In other words there is no analysis of where the group is, whether it has made progress in the last year, what it has learnt from its failures or mistakes (because SA never makes mistakes). All is the onward march of progress. To the Executive, getting a motion passed by TUC Executive was a major or ‘superb’ victory according to their hype. In fact the more radical FBU motion calling for a boycott of all Israeli goods was overridden by the TUC General Council statement that called for a Boycott of just settler produce. Likewise the call for a review of relations with Histadrut was trumped. So whilst it was a victory it was far more minor than that made out.

The attempt by Fiona Edwards to claim credit for the dozens of occupations by students last year was somewhat undermined by the fact that she opposed the Occupation at Sheffield University. We happened to get hold of a leaflet, from Communist Students, attacking her for just this! And despite lying to PSC AGM and saying that she supported the occuption, she initially opposed it because some students (especially the Islamic Society) wanted to try first negotiating common demands with the university administration. There are conflicting accounts about whether she joined the occupation when it started.

Much was made of the fact that membership, 4,400, had risen by a 1,000 in the past year. But last year saw the invasion of Gaza, one of Israel’s greatest political mistakes. It resulted in enormous sympathy with the Palestinians. An organisation with an Executive which was being held to account would ask why it was that PSC had only gained an extra thousand members, most of whom it is destined to lose. In fact it has hovered around the 4,000 marks for as long as many of us can remember. The repetition by Betty Hunter of the fatuous slogan that we are building a mass anti-apartheid movement is belied by the reality. Socialist Action and Communist League (Regans + Hunter) could never build such a movement because it would threaten their own grip on the organisation.

All the Executive members elected (all officer posts were uncontended) in the block of 8 were loyalists and dissident candidates – Zoe Mars (a previous treasurer), Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods and Phelim McCafferty of Green Left – received about 100 votes. The highest candidate receiving 190 votes. The only independent elected was Kamal Hawwash, the Vice-President of PSC, who resigned in the summer over his dismissive treatment by Betty Hunter and the Executive, who was elected unopposed. Probably because SA feared being seen to opey oppose a Palestinian.

PSC ended up the year with a £15,000 surplus. What is again worrying is that last year they summarily dismissed their part-time bookkeeper with no reason given. He was sacked after 11 months, i.e. just before gaining the right to claim unfair dismissal, which is what nastier anti-union employers do. No explanation of this was given to the AGM but it is interesting that they have employed another part-time bookkeeper. It raises fairly obvious questions since a small company audit does not go through vouchers, receipts etc.

What has been taking place for the past few years, because of the tendency of PSC to act as a brake on other’s initiatives and their reluctance to endorse BDS in practice, is the growth of an alternative Boycott movement such as Bricup and the more recent Boycott Israel Network. The latter was formed last summer as a result of a gathering at Wooller youth hostel and a similar get together is planned for the end of March. Groups like the SOAS Palestinian Society organise events like the Left and Palestine which are of far more interest than anything PSC is capable of organising, given the barren politics of SA.

I suspect that these groups will grow and PSC will become little more than the plaything of Socialist Action until they move on to fresh pastures or die out. Many individuals have spoken of giving up on PSC and this is certainly the attitude of activists. Branches are disillusioned with the Executive. It is interesting that the motion on EDO-MBM campaign in Brighton was virtually amended out of existence by an Executive which is afraid of taking any radical stance on an issue which may involve conflict with the British state. Yet the Palestinian issue is one requiring radical solutions and the timidity and conservatism of PSC are becoming an obstacle to solidarity with the Palestinians.

Tony Greenstein


jock mctrousers said...

I think Victoria Brittain is MI6; do you? Apart from that, the Histudtrat thing is something I wasn't really aware of. Thanks for that. I'm not at all happy about being in an organisation that isn't boycotting Histudtrat. A campaign is needed. YOU organise it; me, I just do blog comments. Flippant obviously, but there's a serious point: whatever my reservations about PSC, at least they're doing something and they've kept it going for a long time. But as you note they don't seem to be making much of an effort to make the general public aware of them, though the big STW marches upped their profile a bit. I joined PSC 10 years ago, and I'd have joined 10 years earlier if I'd known about them. It was pretty much chance that led me to them. I was browsing in a left bookstore and I came across Palestine News. I initially supposed it was just another centre-right academic journal like Middle East Review etc - there's a lot of them - and didn't exactly jump at it. The magazine itself doesn't exactly invite newcomers, so what IS it's point? I've responded once to a call for volunteers, and found all these Absolutely Fabulous type women who looked at me like I was from outer space. I put this together with my observation that practically all the executive is composed of women, and formed the suspicion that the people running it were just doing the usual thing of providing 'experience' and references for 'the sisterhood' to move on into lucrative posts with NGOs, and pretty much just going through the motions on the cause. That seems to me as likely as the 'Socialist Action' story I'm afraid. But having said all that, THEY do the work; I don't. I can imagine all sorts of pressures and difficulties, given the nature of the machine they're up against, so I'm reluctant to nitpick; but I'd have to agree that they (we) need to give at least as much attention to reaching out to the 'general public' as to the TU bureaucracy.

Tony Greenstein said...

Yes well I can't comment on Victoria Brittain but she has a good record in other struggles around the world but has never been prominent over Palestine.

Actually it's not the Executive who do all the work. Its the workers (except Ruqqiah Collector who doesn't seem to do anything in particular). Problem is that the work they do is primarily along the lines of the strategies outlined by the Executive, such as parliamentary lobbying.

Most of the Executive are just there to fill the spaces, they do little. people like SA's Ben Soffa and of course the new SA student officer who will witter on about how the occupations were such a wonderful thing even though she opposed it at her own university.

Yes Palestine News doesn't seem to have much of a focus. It has many intereseting articles but they don't seem geared to actually taking the struggle forward.

PSC Exec. aka SA run a mile from all the debates over anti-Semitism which the ZIonists use with increasing frequency. It's all too complicated for them.

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece, just found it. Indeed Socialist Action destroyed what was the excellent Venezuela Information Centre through outrageous underhand tactics (taking control of the membership database, mailing lists etc, viscious internal campaigns against the founders of the VIC such as Gordon Hutchinson and Julie Buxton). They have turned it into a pathetic vehicle for all kinds of far left lunacy, trade union stunts and self aggrandizement by second rate academics. Very sad to hear the same nefarious yet minority influences are present in the PSC. Why these people cannot build their own movements instead of infiltrating others is beyond me, but at least some of worst offenders have moved see their maker