Palestine frames British politics today

Dave Kellaway discusses how Palestine is over-determining politics in Britain today.


People sometimes accuse socialists of being obsessed with events internationally to the detriment of the bread and butter issues here in Britain. The Labour Party apparatus sends its members almost daily emails about training for the next election or local canvassing. Palestine is never mentioned. Most Labour councillors, for instance, regularly go on about crime or housing matters but have done nothing to condemn the genocide in Palestine. Labour councils like Hackney have ruled ceasefire motions out of order as they are not a ‘local matter’ or are ‘too sensitive’ for the local community. Even a few activists on the radical left sometimes make wage struggles or economic issues more important than struggles happening elsewhere in the world. 

The Zionist genocide in Gaza and the West Bank has torpedoed any notion that national politics can be sealed off from international processes. National politics is always a combination or concentration of international elements. The horrifying images from Gaza have come into our living rooms over the last four months. Reality has cut through the distorting analysis of most of the media narrative. There is a big majority of public opinion in favour of a ceasefire and critical of the murderous Israeli onslaught. Every political current has been affected. Today, the headlines are dominated by Sunak’s smearing of Palestine protests as ‘mob rule’ and the Rochdale by-election is being dubbed a referendum on Palestine. George Galloway has been named the favourite by the bookies. No other country in Europe has seen such a framing of national politics as what is going on in Palestine. The UK, along with the US, has been the keenest supporter of Israel. Significant Muslim communities in our cities and towns have mobilised in solidarity and have been joined by hundreds of thousands of people horrified about the massacre of civilians, women, and children.

Tories are demonising democratic protest

Sunak is desperate to find ways of holding off or limiting a Labour victory in the coming general election. He has already tried the Rwanda deportation project and the stopping the boats pledge, but polls show this is having little impact. Creating a panic around Palestine protests as being somehow anti-democratic, intimidatory, and fomenting Islamic fundamentalism is his latest move. He believes that the successful Brexit tactic, based on racism and perceived threats to British national identity, can be repeated in another form.

Home secretary James Cleverly has called on the regular massive demonstrations to be halted, saying they have ‘made their point’. He seems to be saying you are allowed a few marches to let off steam, but leave it to the professional politicians in parliament. It is like telling Martin Luther King, who once demonstrated in Alabama for civil rights, that there was no need for the march on Washington. Of course, what lies behind this is a concern that hundreds of thousands of people will begin to get involved in politics, become more self-organised, and realise the limitations of relying on our mother of parliaments.

More serious than the rhetoric are the proposals to further restrict democratic rights. He is proposing to enforce longer notice for demonstrations and to limit lobbies or protests outside constituency offices, councils, or politicians’ homes. A committee has been set up to look at MPs security, and a £31 million budget has been allocated. Cleverly has the gall to then complain about the £25 million that he claims policing the demonstrations has cost so far. Remember, there have been more than half a dozen demonstrations involving at least 2 million people, if we take the most conservative figures.

Yesterday, the organisers of the demonstrations released the following statement:

Since October, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of London and their local areas calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, yet politicians have denounced these peace protesters as “hate marchers” for expressing the majority view.

Under intense political pressure from the government, political commentators, and a range of pro-Israel groups pushing to have the protests banned, the policing of the demonstrations has been increasingly aggressive and restrictive. It has been marked by unprecedented use of restriction orders, pressure on the organisers not to march, and violent arrests of protesters.

Sunak and the Tories are making a deliberate amalgam between the mass demos, lobbies of parliament or constituency offices, and the protests outside MPs family homes. Ben Jamal, the leader of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, has said protesting outside family homes is not a tactic it endorses. If you want to build and keep mass support, it is probably a wise choice to avoid those sorts of confrontations that allow the government to smear the movement. There are plenty of other ways we can protest effectively. A dossier of complaints about the policing of the demonstrations has been handed in. John McDonnell said any clampdowns on protest “chip away” at basic rights.

Just last week, Lee Anderson, the former Tory vice chairman, and the hard right wing of the Tory party launched an Islamophobic attack on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, claiming he was under the control of the Islamists. Sunak and other front-benchers in the media have said Anderson’s words are wrong and he should apologise. Several interviewers have correctly asked them to explain why his words were wrong. I mean, if I tell my child they are wrong about something, I will explain why. For example, you are wrong to call your friend those names. This robotic repeat of an agreed-upon line revealed a conscious decision not to call out racism and Islamophobia. 

Amid hysteria about MPs security, they conveniently forget that Sadiq actually has police protection due to threats from real Islamic fundamentalists. The Tory leadership thinks what Lee Anderson says might save them votes in the Red Wall seats, and they want to keep him in the Tory party and out of the Faragist Reform Party. Braverman and Truss are echoing Anderson because they know there will be a leadership race after the election, and as the HOPE not Hate survey recently showed, more than half of Tory members say Islam is a threat to the British way of life. The level of lying has reached Trumpian levels with one ex-minister Tory MP, Paul Scully, pronouncing that there are no go areas controlled by Islamists in certain cities. Nick Lowles from HOPE not Hate is right when he says the radical right is on track to win control of the Tory Party.

The Tory Islamophobic offensive is linked not just to anti-migrant racism and replacement theory but also to culture wars. So the singer, Charlotte Church, is denounced for singing with a choir that expressed solidarity with Palestine. Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, has refused to meet with Gazan pastor Munther Isaac because he  shared a platform with Jeremy Corbyn. You would think Welby might at least want to hear from a fellow minister whose congregation has suffered and is on the front lines; he is hardly a Hamas supporter.

Palestine has shaken up the Labour Party

Although its opinion poll lead has remained stable, Palestine has disrupted Starmer’s serene passage to Downing Street. There has been broad opposition to his failure until last week to come to what is a weak, conditional ceasefire position. Labour has lost control of three councils, and over fifty councillors have resigned. Eighty MPs defied the whip on a previous SNP ceasefire motion. Surveys in the Muslim community showed a fall in support for Labour. So Starmer was desperate last week to cobble together a motion that would stop his MPs from voting on the SNP one. He managed to nobble the speaker (a Labour MP) by ramping up concerns about MP security and allegedly making discreet threats to dump him after the election if he did not play ball.

Starmer absolutely did not want his MPs voting on whether there has been collective punishment of the Palestinians. He wants us to believe that the twenty-eight thousand dead up until the recent vote did not justify calls for an immediate ceasefire. It is logically difficult to explain how conditions were different last week compared to a month or two months ago unless Starmer has some sort of threshold that justifies a ceasefire. Anything over thirty thousand is too many. The Labour ceasefire, conditional on a Hamas and Israeli agreement, is only applicable going forward. The real reason why Labour has shifted is the continual slippage in membership, the continued mass mobilisation keeping that pressure up, and, above all, because US foreign policy is shifting slightly.

Despite the end of the Corbyn project, we can see that his legacy has helped galvanise people over Palestine. All those flags waving at conferences may now be banned entirely from official Labour Party meetings, but a lot of the people holding them are still around, inside or outside of the Labour Party, mobilising solidarity. Corbyn himself has probably seen the movement as another reason why he will stand again in Islington. Perhaps Starmer has taken a harder pro-Zionist line than similar sister parties in Europe because he wants to continue to define Labour against any and all positions previously supported by Corbyn.

The breadth and depth of the Palestine movement that is organised independently and against the official line of the Labour Party could well carry over onto other issues once a Labour government is in power, sticking fervently to capitalist fiscal rules. 

Palestine and the radical left

Without the activism of the currents outside the Labour Party, the solidarity movement would have been smaller. The experience built up over the Iraq War has not been wasted. Whatever we may think of the campist weakness of Stop the War on Ukraine, it has worked well on Palestine, alongside the longstanding Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The main slogans around a ceasefire and against US/UK support for the Zionist state have been correct. No one can point to anything that suggests the campaign is pro-Hamas or supports Islamist positions. Demonstrations have been well organised and stewarded. Given the numbers involved, there have been extremely few incidents and arrests. Families and children are everywhere in the mobilisations. People have come out from well beyond the Muslim community, particularly young people.

Left groups like the Socialist Workers Party and Counterfire are recruiting new people, and this probably applies to other smaller groups too. It is a good thing that young people are coming into politics and activism for the first time. We saw with Corbynism, where there was a chance of a more progressive government, that this enthusiasm can wane as the mass movement subsides. Those currents inside and outside Labour that want to build a socialist alternative to Starmer’s tepid social liberalism need to have a strategic discussion that goes beyond the interests and parameters of their own groups. How should we organise? What sort of party? Can we unify the currents? What are the demands that meet the needs of working people in the twenty-first century? How can we link to ecological movements? What kind of internationalism do we need? Should we campaign for proportional representation?

Currently, we have to discuss whether or not to stand for or support candidates who are independent of the Labour Party. Palestine has opened up this debate with slogans such as No Ceasefire, No  Vote. There is no problem with this if it applies to particular constituencies where there are credible candidates, and it does not jeopardise an overall vote for Labour in a general election. We need to kick out the tories and keep up the struggles. You can only do that if Labour wins a general election. So support for Corbyn, some Green candidates, or expelled left councillors would help build that potential strategic alternative to Starmer’s Labour. 

However, spending lots of energy and money attempting to field many candidates who do not have a real local base and will get derisory votes is less productive. Our resources could be better spent on building combative trade currents, developing an eco-socialist network, or strengthening local community campaigns. If significant forces in the trade unions or some Labour MPs were breaking from Starmer’s party, then it would be a different matter. Socialists do not stay in Labour out of principle because it supposedly represents the unity of working people or some potential socialist programme.

A conference is being held this week that is linking all those people considering standing candidates. Some of the recently expelled ex-Labour councillors. Transform, a new party made up of the majority of Left Unity, the Breakthrough Party, and some Liverpool community independent councillors, is thinking of standing candidates. The Socialist Party, with its Trade Union and Socialist Coalition front, is also appealing for people to join its project.

Standing candidates just in order to recruit a few people to one or another political party should not be the main consideration. Electoral campaigns are most effective if they allow us to reach a larger audience for our ideas and if we can win people over to a socialist alternative. One that looks practical and useful in defending their interests and investing their hopes for a better future. Anything else is just sterile posturing.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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