Is UK “friends of Israel” group breaking law on political funding?

Public anger over how members of parliament (MPs) were abusing their expenses system has helped usher in a little transparency to British politics over the past few years. Yet the Labor Friends of Israel (LFI), a powerful group within the country’s main opposition party, is still behaving like a secret society.

Unlike a similar “friends of Israel” group belonging to the Liberal Democrats – the junior party in the ruling coalition - the LFI does not appear to have supplied any information about the sources of its finances to the UK’s Electoral Commission. This lack of disclosure could be illegal. Legislation applying to “members’ associations” of political parties stipulates that all donations above £7,500 ($11,600) must be notified to the Commission within 30 days.

Today, I asked Ben Garrett, the LFI’s head of policy and research, why his organization seems to be breaking the law. “I am not willing to comment,” he replied.

Garrett repeated that answer when I asked for basic details of the LFI’s annual budget and who its largest contributors are. When I argued that it is undemocratic for the LFI to be seeking to influence British policies on the Middle East, without providing basic details about how it is financed, he said, “I am not willing to engage with The Electronic Intifada in a discussion on these issues.”

Admittedly, the information provided by the “friends of Israel” groups for the two other large parties is quite scanty. The Conservative Friends of Israel refused to tell me a few months ago if that group is being funded by the arms industry. The answer to this question cannot be found in the information it has given to the Commission, which mainly relates to visits to the Middle East by Conservative MPs. For its part, the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel group appears to be more open, naming David Alliance, a textiles entrepreneur known to grace The Sunday Times list of Britain’s richest people, as one of its key donors.

Admiring Israel’s weapons

The LFI’s secrecy is all the more disturbing, given how some of its senior figures have recently been preparing a review of Britain’s defense policy and there is strong reason to suspect that their admiration for Israel is coloring their views.

A 96-page paper called “Ideas for Future UK Defense Equipment” was published by the Labor Party in September. Its preface was jointly signed by Michael Dugher, the LFI’s vice-chairman, and Jim Murphy, the shadow defense secretary.

As part of their deliberations, both men visited Israel in June. The bill for that trip was shared by the Britain Israel Research Center (BICOM) and the UK embassy in Tel Aviv. During it, the men held consultations with two of Israel’s leading arms makers, Elbit and Rafael. Their paper lauds the pilotless drones that Elbit has provided to the British Army for the war in Afghanistan, without acknowledging that they have been tested by spying on and murdering civilians in Gaza.

A few months ago, Dugher and Murphy both tried to make political capital out of a controversy in which Liam Fox, then the UK’s defense secretary, was embroiled. Fox had to resign because his close friend Adam Werritty was posing as his adviser, despite how Werritty had never been given any such job by the British government. While Dugher and Murphy were happy to censure Fox and Werritty for their shenanigans, they did not draw attention to how some of Werritty’s trips abroad were financed by BICOM.

Strong bonds to Zionist PR firm

Their reticence on that point is easy to understand. For BICOM is known to have solid bonds with the LFI, even though the center’s chief donor, Las Vegas casino magnate Poju Zabludowicz has helped fund the Conservatives. BICOM is registered as a private company, yet performs many of the functions that an embassy normally would by, for example, arranging for journalists to interview Israeli politicians.

At least three of BICOM’s team either remain involved with the LFI or have been in the recent past. Lorna Fitzsimons, the chief executive, was active in the LFI when she was a Labor member of parliament. Dermot Kehoe, BICOM’s press officer, was the partner of David Cairns, the LFI chairman who died in May. And Luke Akehurst, BICOM’s director of campaigns, is a Labor councillor in London who uses his blog to solicit recruits for the LFI.

Akehurst is also the quasi-official stenographer for the LFI. Last month, he wrote a glowing account of a speech given to the LFI by Ed Miliband, leader of the entire Labor Party.

Proving that he is little different to his predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Miliband is more eager to placate the LFI’s hawks than follow the good example shown by his mother Marion Kozak , who has declared her support for the principled organization Jews for Justice for Palestinians. If Akehurst’s transcript is accurate, Miliband used his LFI address to malign the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel by implying that it had an anti-Semitic motive.

Sara Apps from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in London noted that the only information that the LFI seems to have provided to the Electoral Commission concerned trips that the LFI has financed, without revealing where the money for those trips originated. “According to the Electoral Commission website, LFI has spent at least £76,822 on overseas visits for Labor MPs since 2003,” she told me. “Add this to their office and employment costs, it is difficult to conceive they could survive without significant donations from funders.”

By refusing to reveal where they get their money, the Labor Friends of Israel prove that they are enemies of democracy.

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An interesting story, which I hope you'll pursue. Even if you are a fan of US spelling, it's still the Labour Party, or New Labour as they like to call themselves.
Yours, pedantically, jh.

David Cronin

David Cronin's picture

David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada. His latest book is Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War (Pluto, 2013). His earlier book is Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation (Pluto, 2011).