Unison "contracts out" solidarity with the Palestinians

On Wednesday 20 June, the conference of the public services union Unison voted about three to one to endorse an "economic, cultural, academic, and sporting boycott of Israel".

That we won a quarter of the conference against the boycott, from a standing start - the union's Executive unanimously endorsed the boycott motion, and the Unison United Left backed it too - was an achievement.

Still, the boycotters got away with presenting themselves as the people proposing something practical to help the Palestinians - though Helen Jenner, speaking for the union Executive recommendation, stated that she did not interpret the motion as mandating Unison itself to operate a boycott (and so it committed the union to nothing practical at all).

They got away with presenting themselves as the people calling for effective pressure to win the Palestinians the right to a state of their own - though one of the speakers for the motion, from Birmingham Unison, explicitly endorsed Hamas. (Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas ex-prime-minister, told the Guardian on 18 June that "we want the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, that is Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital" - but there is really no reason to suppose that this is other than a negotiating stance on the way to the declared aim of Hamas, "to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine").

With just a few short speeches on each side, I'm not sure how clearly the fact came across to the majority of delegates that the gist of the motion was not to commit Unison to anything, but to give licence and encouragement to the ardent boycotters, the sort of "smash Israel" enthusiasts who picket Marks and Spencers and who in the 1980s banned student Jewish societies that would not formally condemn "Zionism".

None of the five anti-boycott speakers - Anita Downs (AWL) from Guy's and St Thomas's; Dave Bennett from Bristol Unison (ex-SWP, and now associated with Engage); Stephen Lintott from Peterborough; Garry Freeman (SP) from Nottingham; and a Devon delegate of Israeli origin - endorsed Israeli government policy in any way; all of them explicitly supported the Palestinians' right to a state of their own; some, like Anita, explicitly declared their condemnation of Israeli government policies. They said that the boycott would cut against all hopes of Jewish-Arab working-class unity and chime in with the tradition of previous anti-Jewish boycotts.

Nevertheless, and despite their own contradictions, the boycotters evidently got away with depicting the anti-boycotters as wishy-washy, artificially even-handed, or people who valued abstractions of working-class unity, or such ineffectual things as Unison's official links with the Israeli trade unions, above practical action to help the Palestinians.

One of the pro-boycott speakers, Caroline Bedale from Manchester, is a well-known (non-SWP) leftist in Unison. She declared that her interpretation of the boycott would allow continued links with "progressives" in Israel, without saying who would decide, and how, which Israeli Jews are "progressive" and thus win exemption from the general rule that Israelis are to be shunned.

Generally the active pro-boycott left in Unison, the SWP/ Respect, kept a low profile on this issue, letting others speak, some of whom could say sincerely that they support "two states".

I would guess that the pro-boycott speakers, other than Helen Jenner, were broadly speaking leftists, but only because of their style and manner, not because they said anything about socialism, the working class, democracy, or even imperialism. This was the soft-sell, not the "Zionism-is-imperialism" hard-sell (though it is the latter that will inform the active boycotters).

Stalinoid influence in Unison would have had something to do with it, too. The debate immediately before the boycott one saw a motion on Cuba, uncritically supporting the Cuban government, passed with only a handful of votes against. The CPB (Morning Star) put out a leaflet supporting the boycott and specifically advocating it include a boycott of the Israeli trade unions.

Unison nominally endorsed the "Enough"/ Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstration on 9 June. It mobilised hardly any members for it. Unsurprising: it is - and rightly so - impossible to recruit any number of democratic-minded working-class people to the slippery slogans and pro-Hamas tone of that demonstration (its high point was a video-cast of Ismail Haniyeh, in which he declared "two states" was not a possibility).

And, of course, if the Israeli right can "show" Israelis that all the active critics of Israeli government policy are supporters of Hamas, then the right will prevail in Israel.

The motion does nothing to break that vicious circle. On the contrary, it makes it worse. It signifies Unison doing "solidarity with the Palestinians" without committing itself to any action. Instead, it has licensed, and "contracted out" solidarity to, the ardent "smash Israel" boycotters - while preserving "deniability" for itself.

Solidarity should be brought back "in house"! Unison and other unions should be mobilising members on demonstrations, pickets, solidarity contingents, and speaking tours, on the clear basis of the union's own declared policy of "two states".

Not wishy-washy even-handedness, but not backhanded support for Hamas or denial of the Israeli Jews' right to a state, either.

The job now is to put this clear solidarity message on the agenda in Unison and other unions, and stop the boycotters setting the terms of debate.