Why you should abstain from the BDS referendum

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Do you feel your Students’ Union should hold a political opinion on complex international affairs?

When SCAN Editor Ollie Orton and I spoke to you in Alexandra Square a couple of weeks ago, the answer was a resounding no. You felt that LUSU served to represent students in primarily on-campus issues, and holding political opinions on international affairs undermined the Union’s neutral status. Ironically, LUSU will be doing quite the opposite.

As you may not be aware, when you come to place your vote in the JCR elections later this week, you will also be greeted with an additional question in the form of a referendum:

Should LUSU adopt a BDS policy and boycott the following companies?

  • Israeli Medjoul dates
  • Ahava Cosmetics
  • Soda Stream
  • Eden Springs Bottled Water
  • Israeli Wines
  • HP
  • Caterpillar
  • Volvo
  • Hyundai
  • G4S

Interested? Let me give you a little history and expand a little on the referendum question, although it does get a little complex.

Back in June, LUSU Council passed a motion which, in a nut-shell, mandated our Students’ Union to publicly announce support for the national Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, thereby pressuring the country into complying with international law. Now that the motion has passed, LUSU FTOs must dedicate resources to design and distribute material on BDS, and an Israeli Apartheid Week will be held throughout the coming year. We’ve seen this before – time and again – but this particular motion doesn’t quite stop there…

LUSU were also mandated to hold a referendum which, if passed, means the University will be lobbied to divest from companies that are complicit in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. It will also mean that our Students’ Union will be forced to boycott companies such as HP, Volvo, G4S, and Hyundai.

I see three main issues here – a) LUSU’s political stance; b) representation; and c) repercussions.

Firstly, it must be stressed that regardless of whether you will be casting a “yes” or “no” vote, you are still (in practice) complicit in the fact that your Union is taking a political stance on complex international affairs. By their very nature, Students’ Unions lean to the left, and by their very nature they are political entities; I do not believe, however, that they should take such a drastic political stance in what is a very complex debate. Unless a majority of students choose to abstain from the referendum, we (as a student body) will have legitimised LUSU’s political stance. After chatting with students in Alexandra Square, this is something that the wide majority of students are strongly against.

Secondly, I think it is important to discuss the timing of this referendum. The motion was passed on the 18th June 2015 in the last sitting of LUSU Council before summer, and it subsequently mandated the incoming FTO team to hold a referendum in Michaelmas Term 2015. The motion was proposed by last year’s LUSU President Laura Clayson, and last year’s LUSU VP (Activities) Salman Rukhsar. Unfortunately, their term of office came to an end over summer, meaning that their pending referendum was simply shoved onto the incoming FTO team. And we cannot deny that the incoming FTO team inevitably have a very different set of priorities, political beliefs, and opinions. Whilst the FTO team serve to represent student opinion, and I understand that absolutely anyone could have proposed the motion, I would argue that this particular political issue ticks more boxes on Clayson’s manifesto last year than Hedley’s manifesto this year. But that opens up a much wider debate about how much an FTO can hope to achieve with just one year in office, and it opens up a much wider debate about how we can bridge the summer gap, where a good chunk of our student population graduates, and a new set comes in. Is this particular referendum representative of what our current student population voted for? I would argue not.

Finally, I think it is important to discuss potential repercussions that may materialise if the referendum is met with a majority “yes” vote. Whilst the motion states that the FTO team must “actively implement all resolves in collaboration with the Friends of Palestine Society,” I would be interested in learning more about this consultative process. Were Palestinian students asked their opinion, and were Israeli students asked their opinion?

One person I discussed the issue with was seemingly concerned that a boycott would affect innocent people who don’t agree with the current situation, but happen to live in Israel or the disputed territories. Likewise, many of the companies in illegal settlements do employ Palestinian people, and they would inevitably become unemployed. LUSU are getting themselves mixed up in a very complex issue with significant repercussions for innocent people.

LUSU have expressed that “a vote in favour of divestment may mean changes for LUSU, including businesses it is prepared to work with and productions it is prepared to sell. It would also mean that LUSU would lobby the university to make similar changes.”

Would LUSU allow sponsorship from Caterpillar, Volvo, and G4S? Would they advertise the companies’ graduate schemes to students? Would they refuse to stock Eden Springs Bottled Water in LUSU Central? Would they proceed to chuck out every single one of their HP computers, and replace them with another brand?

I’ll say it again – what we are dealing with here is an incredibly complex issue. LUSU’s involvement with the BDS movement would be entirely tokenistic – it is unlikely to affect the Union, but it instead lands them in very uneven territory that few people understand completely. I do not agree with my Students’ Union holding such a belief, regardless of which way the vote goes.

I’ll be abstaining from the referendum vote and would encourage you to do the same.

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