Government crackdown on local council democracy
Guest blog: Ross Hemingway from War on Want
Local council divestment campaigns were a central part of the anti-Apartheid movement and an effective response to the failure of the Thatcher government to act on the systematic racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa.
Boycott Apartheid Bus, London, 1989, photo credit: R Barraez D´Lucca
Across the UK, ordinary people stepped up, organised, and by 1985 over 120 local councils had taken action to end their ties with Apartheid. The people were winning and Thatcher was losing. Her answer: shut down the democratic space. In 1988 she imposed broad new restrictions on councils taking 'political action'.
Thirty years on, the government is once more trying to shut down local democracy.
In November 2015, the government announced a proposal to block local councils in England and Wales from deciding how to invest their pension funds. Under the new plan, the government will have the power to veto investment decisions made locally on ethical grounds in relation to human rights, arms trade, fossil fuels and other issues of concern.
The government’s latest attack on our democratic rights and freedoms is a clear attempt to crack down on the growing strength of the grassroots Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which aims to end government and corporate complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights. Ministers say it’s a response to the “spread of militant divestment campaigns against UK defence and Israeli firms.”
Solidarity Demonstration with Palestine, photo credit: Heri Rakotomalala
Palestinians have suffered from systematic Israeli repression for over 60 years, during which time governments all over the world have allowed Israel to act with impunity. Where the UK government has failed to hold Israel to account for its actions, it is ordinary citizens who have stepped in. Over the past decade, trade unions, student unions, faith groups, local councils, and others have mobilised to end UK complicity in Israel's repeated violations of international law.
Now the government wants to stop this. The new proposal would essentially force councils to disregard a company’s complicity in violations of international law and ignore concerns of the local community, in favour of the UK maintaining good diplomatic relations with a notorious human rights abusing regime.
The proposal comes at a time when the BDS movement is having unprecedented success around the world. Recently, the American United Methodist Church declared the five largest Israeli banks off-limits for investment, French telecom giant Orange terminated its Israeli contracts, and Irish multinational CRH divested its share from the Israeli company supplying concrete for the Apartheid Wall.
Other companies targeted by campaigners include:
- French multinational Veolia, who ended its complicity in the illegal occupation when it sold off its stakes in its Israel projects.
- G4S, the notorious British private security company, which provides equipment and services to the Israeli prison system.
- Israeli police, and military checkpoints, has also faced considerable pressure from campaigners, not least when the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation sold its shares in the company following pressure from the BDS movement.
All of these victories are the result of hard-fought public campaigns that serve only to strengthen the BDS movement and resolve of campaigners.
Power of Intervention
The government proposal then amounts to a cynical shutdown of local democratic space explicitly stating that:
“...using pensions and procurement policies to pursue boycotts, divestment and sanctions against foreign nations and the UK defence industry are inappropriate, other than where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the Government.”
The government’s aim is clear: to deter local councils from taking divestment action. And if the intimidation fails? The government will have the final say anyway, through something called ‘power of intervention’. So much for George Osborne’s so-called ‘Devolution Revolution’. The government’s action has consistently failed to match its rhetoric when it comes to localism and devolving power.
Alongside the proposal to block divestment, the government recently announced new guidance for public bodies concerning which companies get public contracts. The media machine went into overdrive, coining the phrase ‘boycott ban’ and reporting that local councils, university student unions, and other institutions would be criminalised for boycotting suppliers on ethical grounds.
It was the latest assault on democracy. Yet, while the guidance is clearly designed to have a chilling effect on boycott campaigns, and satisfy an Israeli government that is demanding, and in some cases bankrolling, crackdowns on BDS around the world, it does not actually ban boycotts.
The imminent threat to BDS remains the government’s plan to block local councils from divesting on ethical grounds.
War on Want is fighting back as part of a coalition of groups representing campaigns for justice in Palestine, fossil fuel divestment and anti-militarism. Our campaign to ‘Protect Local Democracy’ prompted an incredible reaction from the public. Over 26,000 people rejected the government’s anti-democratic plan. The fight to protect local democracy is only just beginning.
Find out more about the BDS Movement in our boycott section.