“800,000 people demonstrated in London last weekend, the largest demonstration in support of the Palestinians in British history. Without a firm stance by the organisers of the march, it would never have happened.”
By Simon Fletcher
As the crisis over Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people works its way through British politics, so it has demonstrated the need for a firm internationalist movement against militarism.
Labour has now lost eleven members of the Parliamentary front bench over Gaza – Imran Hussein last week, and ten more this week who voted for the SNP’s amendment to the King’s Speech calling for a ceasefire. Over fifty Labour MPs voted for the motion, contrary to the whip.
In response, during the morning media round following the rebellion, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey stated that ‘we’re acting in these very difficult circumstances as if we were in government.’
The intention may have been to send a signal that Labour is a ‘responsible’ party, but John Healey’s description could not be clearer about the reality of where Labour will position itself in global politics when it forms the next government. A Labour government foreign policy that does not step outside a Washington-led consensus will meet opposition and rightly so.
Now, the immediate situation involves a collision between the two-party consensus in Parliament, and very broad anti-war, humanitarian, pro-Palestinian opinion.
For Labour the impact is particularly serious.
On the one hand is the Labour Party leadership in Parliament. Labour took a line that locked it into conflict with sections of its own base and the wider public:
- Asserting that Israel ‘does have that right’, in Keir Starmer’s words, to implement a siege and withhold power and water from the population of Gaza;
- Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry repeatedly refusing to answer whether cutting off food, water and power in Gaza was contrary to international law;
- Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy refusing to say whether he backed Israel’s order for the forced displacement of one million people in Gaza, claiming it is ‘not a yes or no question’ and ‘war is ugly.’
Following a furious kickback, Labour carried out a belated recalibration with Keir Starmer’s Chatham House speech. His aim was to seek to calm the backlash within the party with warm words about humanitarian pauses and a broader statement of Labour’s position on Israel and Palestine. At the same time, the Chatham House speech was designed to set out a framework to resist the growing international consensus for ceasefire, which is opposed by Israel, the US and Britain.
On the other hand, there is mass pressure for ceasefire in Britain and around the world, including NGOs and charities on the front line of delivering humanitarian aid, international agencies and pressure groups, at the UN, multiple governments, religious leaders including the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, within the trade unions and Labour Party, and over 70 per cent of the British population.
Between the dominant political consensus in Britain and the huge outpouring of support for an alternative, the anti-war and pro-Palestinian movements have mobilised opposition, taking it onto the streets and driving it through politics. Whereas Keir Starmer’s leadership of Labour was united with Rishi Sunak, the movement for a ceasefire has represented the actual opposition.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, with Friends of Al-Aqsa, the Stop the War coalition, Muslim Association of Britain, Palestinian Forum in Britain, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, have organised mass demonstrations, growing in size, up to last weekend’s massive march through central London. Labour MPs have been deluged with contact from their constituents. Within Labour, campaigns such as Labour For A Ceasefire Now and Labour & Palestine have mobilised Labour members as have Muslim Labour campaigns. All of this is a necessary correction to the position of the British government and Labour’s failure.
As the mass marches and mobilisations have grown they have given increasing confidence to the whole movement. A clear pole of attraction against the siege of Gaza and for a ceasefire was necessary to break through the bipartisan agreement at the top of politics.
As one of the main march organisers, the Stop the War coalition has been a core part of the mobilisation against the siege, bombardment, ground assault, and forced movement of Palestinians in Gaza.
On the two biggest failures of foreign and military policy this century – Iraq and Afghanistan – Stop the War, CND and the other campaigns against military intervention were right where the British political establishment was disastrously wrong.
But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been a concerted effort to sideline Stop the War from what is regarded as legitimate discourse, primarily over its position on NATO.
The attack on Stop the War came right from the top of the Labour party. Keir Starmer wrote in 2022 that ‘the likes of the Stop the War coalition are not benign voices for peace. At best they are naive; at worst they actively give succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies.’
One former Labour MP argued that the party should proscribe Stop the War altogether. It was even reported that Jeremy Corbyn would not have the Labour whip restored while he continued to associate with Stop the War. This was exercise in using foreign and defence policy to prove distance from Corbyn, the coalition’s former chair. More than that, the exclusion zone around Stop the War was a mechanism to delineate what kind of ‘left’ is acceptable – so that the Labour leader not only determines his own politics, but also determines which critiques of his political project are permissible.
However, the mobilisation against the brutalisation of the Palestinians shows exactly the necessity of an intransigent anti-militarist current that is willing to stand outside the official consensus and organise against it.
800,000 people demonstrated in London last weekend, the largest demonstration in support of the Palestinians in British history. Without a firm stance by the organisers of the march, it would never have happened. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, whipped up an onslaught against the 11th of November demonstration. It was smeared as a ‘hate march’ and the Tory government put pressure on the police to ban it. In response to Braverman’s demands, the police asked the organisers to cancel the demonstration. As the Independent reported, ‘Stop The War Coalition, which is one of six groups organising the demonstration, said they were “determined to go ahead” and described the Met’s intervention as an attempt to deny their civil liberties.’ Three trade union general secretaries of consistently anti-war unions – the FBU, RMT and NEU – indicated they would be marching regardless. Had the organisers of Saturday’s march cancelled it as the police requested, under pressure from Braverman, the Home Secretary would have inflicted a defeat on the basic right to freedom of expression and assembly – and in doing so would have solidified her position in the government.
The march organisers rejected the police request and police had no basis to ban it. By refusing the police request, the march organisers exposed the government’s weakness, humiliated Sunak and Braverman and struck a blow against Braverman’s authoritarianism. Had Braverman won her battle to stop the march, it would have been impossible for Sunak to sack her even if he had wanted to. But her defeat and reaction forced her out of the government. That is a concrete achievement of the marchers and the organisers of the marches.
So the last few weeks have proven the need for a firm anti-militarist current in British politics. Its involvement as one of the organisers of the mobilisations for the Palestinians is a vindication of the role and existence of Stop the War.
Writing only a few months after Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, Ralph Miliband described Labour’s relationship with the USA through NATO as one of hoping to ‘pull at the sleeve’ of the Americans.
But of course the dynamic went the other way.
As Miliband wrote: ‘The Labour Government sees the Alliance as enabling it to pull at the sleeve of the United States; but the crucial point is that, as a faithful ally, it can only do so if it accepts the general framework of American policy, which may, and in many instances does, contradict the hopes often expressed by Labour leaders and also the officially adopted policies of the Labour Party.’
Thus British foreign and military policy was subordinated to the USA, and so by definition was Labour’s.
Now, under Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour gives no sense of even wishing to pull at the sleeve of the US. Already acting as if it is a government in opposition, as John Healey’s remarks tell us, Labour has reduced its position to a bipartisan stance alongside the British government, which has sought to avoid any pressure on Israel throughout its onslaught, and which is in turn completely in accord with the White House.
Every single mobilisation fights for the lives and rights of the Palestinians now: it also shows what kind of movement will be necessary when Labour takes office.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on November 16th, 2023.
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