Saturday 2 February 2013

Friends of whom?

Why isn’t there more controversy in the party about Liberal Democrat Friends of China (LDFC)?

It’s one thing to seek to improve understanding of China or provide a rallying point for members of the party from the UK Chinese community. It’s quite another to support the Chinese occupation of Tibet and say that, if the Tibetans don’t like it, they have plenty of other Asian countries they can go and live in.

Worse, when any party members criticise this occupation or the denial of human rights, LDFC condemns them as ‘Sinophobes’, runs a campaign of personal vilification, and tries to hound them out of the party.

Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that LDFC is nothing more than an uncritical mouthpiece for the Chinese government, or even an arm of Chinese foreign policy.

Except that none of the above is true. I made it up. In fact, there is a fine body called Chinese Liberal Democrats that does none of these appalling things.

But if this fictional account were true, how would you feel? Probably the same way you should feel about Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI).

LDFI defends the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, and never criticises Israel’s continual land grabs and construction of illegal settlements. Indeed, at the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate in March 2009, LDFI unsuccessfully opposed an emergency motion on Gaza that was critical of Israel’s blockade.

LDFI has also pursued long-running vendettas against Chris Davies MEP and Baroness Jenny Tonge (and one suspects that David Ward MP can now expect similar treatment following his recent ill-judged comments). Open debate and disagreement with opponents are perfectly reasonable. Intimidation and relentless smear campaigns are not (especially as the aim is not merely to silence individual critics but also to make an example of them, creating a climate where everyone else is fearful of speaking out).

Actually, there is no reason for anyone to feel bullied and every reason to call LDFI’s bluff. Although LDFI may put on an impressive act, it is in fact a tiny organisation. It was found seriously wanting when, in 2011, the Liberal Democrats reviewed the status of all the party’s ‘Associated Organisations’ (‘AO’ = a special interest group formally recognised by the party). This review found that LDFI had only 30 members. It recommended that LDFI should have its AO status renewed to 2015 but “subject to submitting a plan [by September 2011] for increasing the membership from the current minimum of 30”.

LDFI’s empty posturing may seem a farce but is really a tragedy, since it leaves an unfulfilled need for a genuinely Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. A true LDFI would recognise Palestinian statehood as a prerequisite for a just and lasting peace, not claim to be “strongly committed” to a two-state solution while effectively supporting an indefinite occupation. It would support Israeli organisations such as B’Tselem that work for reconciliation, not act as a shameless mouthpiece for the Israeli government. It would be working with Liberal International to support Israeli liberals seeking to rebuild an Israeli liberal party, not spouting the Likud party line.

I’d support such an organisation. I wouldn’t touch the current LDFI with a bargepole. And if LDFI continues to defend illiberal policies while being unable to summon up more than a handful of members, its AO status can no longer be justified.

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