London, The Arab Weekly – The Middle East foreign policy of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party seems to centre on Palestinians. However, at a time when the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere is ongoing and the repercussions of the “Arab spring” continue to be felt, is this focus short-sighted?
The Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME) is a Labour Party group that “campaigns for peace and justice in the Middle East” but with particular focus on the Palestinian territories.
“Achieving justice for the Palestinians remains one of the most pressing international issues of our time. LFPME supports a viable two-state solution that delivers justice and freedom for the Palestinian people,” the group says on its website.
The LFPME, like other intra-party groups, aims to bring people with shared views and interests together, working like any other “friend of” party political group. In terms of regional interests, there is the Labour Friends of Israel, Labour Friends of Iraq and a Muslim Friends of Labour. However, the LFPME is the only Labour Party group that includes a wider focus on the Middle East.
“We focus on Palestine. We haven’t had many opportunities to focus on the wider Middle East but it’s purely a pragmatic thing because Palestine is one of the major areas of foreign policy discussion so we have tended to focus on that,” said LFPME Acting Director Shazia Arshad.
“Although our name indicates that we would talk about the wider Middle East, and our MPs do talk about the wider Middle East, as a group we tend to focus on Palestine.”
The LFPME has more than 130 parliamentary supporters, more than half the number of Labour MPs, including senior figures such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and members of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee Yasmin Qureshi and Mike Gapes.
Corbyn, who recently easily overcame a leadership challenge, is a well-known campaigner on Palestinian issues. Speaking at the LFPME fringe meeting at the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool earlier this year, Corbyn said: “I’ve campaigned for decades in support of the rights of Palestinian people, including refugees, for an end to the occupation of Palestinian land and for the two-state solution.”
LFPME Vice-Chairman MP Andrew Slaughter, who is also secretary of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group, acknowledged the perceived focus on Palestinians but denied this came at the expense of other foreign policy issues.
“Whereas other issues have a more urgent or emergency status at a particular time, like Syria for example, what’s different about Palestine is that this is a matter that’s been going on for a long time with very little change or improvement,” he said.
“If you look at issues that are raised in parliament or foreign office questions, it is probably the single most raised foreign policy issue over time. I think that’s because it is something which has been a real injustice that needs to be addressed and also because it is perceived as primary a political problem [and] it’s something that could and should have been resolved through diplomacy and political means before now.”
Questions regarding the Palestinian territories, compared with other Middle East issues, make an area of relative consensus for a fractured Labour Party. A 2014 parliamentary vote on recognising the state of Palestine was put forward by the LFPME chairman, MP Grahame Morris, and was backed by 195 Labour MPs, although 63 Labour MPs abstained.
Although purely symbolic, the 2014 vote demonstrated far more unity than recent Labour votes on Middle East issues, including a highly tense 2015 vote on Britain carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria in which most Labour MPs fell in line with Corbyn to oppose the motion. However, 66, including some LFPME supporters, voted in favour of air strikes.
“Currently, there’s an understandable movement of attention to what’s happening not just in Syria but also many other countries in the region, to Egypt and what’s happening [in] Yemen and Libya,” Slaughter said.
It is for this reason that the LFPME’s work on the Palestinian territories remains so important, he said.
“We were already moving in 2011 towards a stalemate or worse than a stalemate situation, where there was much more overt colonisation projects by the Israelis,” Slaughter warned. “There has been a progression [in settlement building] since 1967 that has accelerated over time under all Israeli governments.”