Socialist Action relegates solidarity

Tony Greenstein gives his view of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign annual conference

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign 2010 annual conference will be seen as a watershed. In recent years Socialist Action and the Communist League have achieved a vice-like grip over the organisation, politically and administratively. And in order to ensure that remains the case, an agreement has been reached between PSC trade union officer Bernard Regan and various junior members of the trade union bureaucracy. The price of the deal is the exclusion of anti-Zionist politics from PSC in exchange for trade union money.

One of the fruits of this partnership is the importation of the worst undemocratic practices of the trade union bureaucracy. The key debate at the AGM was over whether to call for the breaking of links with Israel’s settler ‘trade union’, Histadrut. This is a ‘union’ which was founded on the principle of Jewish labour: ie, the expulsion of Arab labour.

Last year, when the matter was debated, Regan maintained that the disagreement between himself and the supporters of breaking the links with Histadrut were tactical, not principled. This year Regan was at least honest about his and Socialist Action’s position. Histadrut’s loss of its position as the second largest employer in Israel, most of its industry having been privatised, meant that it was a different creature.

It is true that quantitatively Histadrut is but a shadow of its former self. Membership has plummeted to some 700,000, a loss of a million workers. It has shed most of its Arab members, since it no longer runs Kupat Holim, Israel’s health service. But this is not a change of substance. If anything it has become a more genuinely racist settler union for Israeli Jewish workers. Its labour councils continue to call for the deportation of migrant labour and the replacement of Arab with Jewish labour to reduce (Jewish) unemployment. Histadrut is still stealing a percentage of the wage of Palestinian workers in Israel. In short, its Zionist character has not changed.

But TUC leaders are notorious for not wanting to upset the applecart. They are member of the International Trade Unions Confederation, as is Histadrut. They do not want to introduce the politics of solidarity into relations with other trade union bureaucracies. So in exchange for money from unions like Unison and a ‘boycott’ campaign by the TUC, which so far consists of postcards from PSC and the TUC to MPs, PSC will refrain from mentioning the word ‘Histadrut’.

The fact that all Palestinian grassroots organisations support boycotting Histadrut is irrelevant. What is at stake is the subsidisation of Socialist Action and besides that Histadrut is a minor matter, even if it does involve scabbing on Palestinian workers inside Israel.

Apart from the motion from Brighton PSC calling for the cutting of links with Histadrut, conference also heard another one from two trade union executive members - John McGee of the Fire Brigades Union and Kevin Courtney of the National Union of Teachers - which merely congratulated the PSC executive for winning its position at TUC Congress. Apparently a pointless motion, but it had its purpose.

Hugh Lanning, deputy general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, chaired conference. He did not seem to be a well person and this seemed to compound his already bureaucratic ailments. When it came to putting both motions to the vote, Lanning decided to engage in a traditional bit of fixing, ruling that if the uncontroversial motion 2 was passed motion 3 would fall. This was a quite outrageous manoeuvre, but challenging the chair requires a two-thirds majority and in the event PSC conference demonstrated its normal deference by voting against the challenge by 138 votes to 89.

And in a remarkable example of how PSC’s Socialist Action leadership is tied to a bourgeois solution of the Palestinian question, an amendment from Roland Rance and myself condemning the apartheid treatment of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the attempts to substitute Jewish for Arab workers was opposed by the executive. They sought remittance. What this signals is that in their attempt to tie their fortunes to a Palestinian Bantustan, PSC has abandoned the Palestinian diaspora and Palestinians inside Israel itself.

PSC refuses to utter one word of criticism of the Vichy-style Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and extended an invitation to its representative in London, professor Manuel Hassassian, to speak to the conference. The PA, whose security forces are trained by the United States in Jordan under general Dayton, in reality supported Israel’s attack on Gaza last year as a means of deposing its rival, Hamas. Its Marshall Pétain, president Mahmoud Abbas, only last week endorsed the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s iron wall on the southern border of Gaza, built by the United States and intended to complete the siege of Gaza. That was the real reason the PA withdrew a motion endorsing the Goldstone report at the UN. To criticise Abbas would mean accepting that the whole of the Oslo process has been a disaster for the Palestinians and that what we now face is a one-state solution. The question is what type of one-state solution.

In order to prevent discussion wherever possible, the agenda was stuffed with speakers including clapped-out bureaucrat Rodney Bickerstaffe, ex-general secretary of Unison, who for some reason needed to be introduced by Victoria Brittain. Some, like the main speaker, Mustafa Barghouti, who contested the Palestinian Authority presidency in 2005, were extremely interesting, as was Mark Serwotka’s description of his visit to Palestine. But the intention to waste as much time as possible was crystal-clear.

The only other debate was over students. The main executive motion was from Fiona Edwards, PSC’s new student officer, who just happens to be the key activist in the fast declining Student Broad Left front of Socialist Action. She took over from Bryony Shanks, SBL’s failed candidate in last year’s NUS elections, and, making up a triumvirate, there is Ruqqayah Collector, SBL’s last member of NUS executive.

Our amendment 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. All mention of Action Palestine, the main group behind the occupation of colleges and universities last year, was omitted from SA’s history of the student movement. Instead we were accused of ‘red-baiting’ and McCarthyism for pointing out that SA is a secretive freemasons-style group that operates politically in order to obtain jobs and perks for its members.

I thought that the victims of McCarthyism fought for the rights of labour, against racism and US imperialism. But apparently the sacrifices of the Rosenbergs and Pete Seeger are as nothing compared to Fiona Edwards and Socialist Action. If you dare to tell the truth you are a ‘red-baiter’! No doubt it is a form of witch-hunting to point out that all three of the last staff appointments in PSC have been to members of SA. It took a member from West Midlands PSC to point out that the conference was a sea of grey with barely no young faces. The contrast between the vacuous rhetoric of Fiona Edwards and the reality of Conway Hall could not have been more marked.

PSC has effectively subcontracted its work to the student wing of Socialist Action. And, given that SBL is almost non-existent today, that is not a very smart thing to do. After the conference ended, a woman approached me to say that Socialist Action was doing the same in Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign.

Socialist Action’s method is to talk up any successes and gloss over any failures. After the demise of the Livingstone regime there is an urgent need for organisations which can supply jobs and office facilities to SA. To the executive, getting a motion passed by the TUC was “superb”. In fact the FBU motion calling for a boycott of Israeli goods was overridden by a TUC general council statement that called for a boycott only of settler produce. Even the most minor of victories is inflated out of all proportion.

But what really rattled Fiona Edwards was that her attempt to claim credit for the occupations by students last year was undermined by the fact that she opposed the occupation at Sheffield University. We were able to prove this because we managed to obtain a leaflet from Communist Students attacking her for just this! And so we had the spectacle of SA’s leading student activist opposing an occupation in support of Gaza in her college and then lying to PSC AGM about her role.

As an antidote to apathy, we have the repetition by general secretary Betty Hunter of the fatuous slogan that PSC is building a mass anti-apartheid movement. Socialist Action and their Communist League associates could never build such a movement because it would threaten their own grip on the organisation. Because of the low political consciousness of most of those in attendance and their willingness to defer to those in control, there is only one officer now who is not part of the ruling bloc: vice-chair Kamal Hawwash.

SA’s grip on PSC has resulted in the growth of alternative groups such as the newly established Boycott Israel Network. Even local groups such as the School of Oriental and African Studies Palestinian Society are able to organise events like the Left in Palestine conference, which are of far more interest than anything PSC is capable of doing.

I suspect that these groups will grow and PSC will become little more than the plaything of Socialist Action and a parliamentary lobby group. Despite the rhetoric about the only issue being that of Palestinian self-determination, it is clear that Socialist Action and its Communist League associates see the Palestinian question primarily in terms of the survival of their own groups.