Slaughter in Gaza Has Discredited Britain’s Political Class

Britain’s two main parties are still defending Israel’s war on the people of Gaza despite overwhelming public support for a cease-fire. Rishi Sunak’s government would rather attack democratic rights in Britain than withdraw its support for war crimes.

Pro-Palestinian protesters calling for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in Gaza on February 17, 2024 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images)

On February 29, the official death toll from Gaza reached thirty thousand — a figure that is sure to be an underestimate, with countless bodies trapped under the rubble. The Israeli army marked the occasion by opening fire on a crowd of desperate, starving people before running them over with tanks.

Just as news of the massacre was beginning to appear in the British media, a by-election in the northern English town of Rochdale delivered a sharp rebuke to the two major parties for their complicity in Israel’s war crimes. The former Labour politician George Galloway successfully turned the contest into a referendum on Britain’s support for the onslaught against Gaza, taking a seat at Labour’s expense.

Labour’s average score in Rochdale for the last three general elections was 52 percent. This time it dropped below 8 percent, and the combined vote share for Labour and the Conservatives was less than 20 percent. There were twice as many votes cast for Galloway alone.

The Tory prime minister, Rishi Sunak, responded to Galloway’s victory with an extraordinary diatribe, vilifying the movement in solidarity with the people of Gaza that has organized some of the biggest and most sustained protest marches in Britain’s modern history. Sunak presented those who question the chauvinistic nationalism of his government as a treacherous fifth column.

In fact, it is Sunak himself who is completely out of step with public opinion in Britain. In the most recent opinion survey, 66 percent wanted Israel to end its war on Gaza, while just 13 percent think it should continue. Sixty-six percent also said that Israel should enter peace negotiations with Hamas.

It is precisely because they know how isolated they are over this issue that Britain’s political class has been ramping up the rhetoric and threatening to clamp down on the solidarity movement. But the protests and the general crisis of legitimacy will continue until there is a change of direction from the British power elite.

The Braverman Riot

By the end of November last year, there had already been some major ructions in British politics as Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer tried to maintain a united front in support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s war. Three prominent Labour politicians — the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, and the mayors of London and Manchester, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham — broke ranks with Starmer to call for a cease-fire. Dozens of Labour MPs also defied the party whip at Westminster to back a pro-cease-fire motion from the Scottish National Party (SNP).

The Conservative home secretary, Suella Braverman, grew increasingly furious as the Palestine solidarity movement continued to mobilize on the streets of the capital. She pressured London’s Metropolitan Police, known as the Met, to ban the marches. When senior officers explained that there was no legal basis for doing so, Braverman incited a mob of far-right football hooligans to stage a counterprotest on November 11.

The home secretary was clearly hoping that they would attack pro-Palestine marchers and supply her with a pretext to ban future demonstrations. Unfortunately for Braverman, the plan backfired as the intoxicated rabble she had stirred up turned their aggression on the police. Sunak had no choice but to sack her from his government.

This all happened in plain sight on the national stage, yet the story of Braverman’s disgrace might as well have unfolded in a different universe if we were to judge by Sunak’s intervention after the Rochdale by-election. The prime minister claimed to have witnessed “a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” as a result of the Gaza solidarity protests, with “intimidation, threats, and planned acts of violence.”

Every word of this was a lie. There has been a small handful of arrests — fewer than you would expect to see at a typical sporting event in one of Britain’s major cities — and we cannot even take those arrests at face value, since the Met has been under intense political pressure to find excuses for taking people into custody. The Met itself is a profoundly corrupt and discredited force, riddled with misogyny and racism, so we should certainly not concede its right to determine that certain placards or slogans are “offensive.”

In view of the numbers involved and the sheer wickedness of what they are protesting against, we should really be asking how this movement has been so peaceful, so disciplined, and so restrained in its conduct. The idea that Sunak can accuse it of fostering “disruption and criminality,” after we have all witnessed the conduct of the woman he appointed as home secretary, is a shameful travesty.

Parliament of Fools

After Braverman’s defenestration, the solidarity movement continued to hold regular marches in London, but neither Sunak nor Starmer would budge over their support for Israel. In an attempt to break the logjam, the SNP brought forward a new motion in February calling for a cease-fire. Labour proposed an amendment that stripped out the SNP’s accurate description of Israeli war crimes, with phrases like “collective punishment of the Palestinian people” and “the slaughter of innocent civilians,” replacing them with a much vaguer reference to “the intolerable loss of Palestinian life.”

This left the door open for Israeli government officials to claim that while they deplore the loss of Palestinian life as much as anybody, the responsibility for their deaths lies solely with Hamas for using civilians as “human shields.” We have heard countless variations on this theme over the past five months in spite of overwhelming evidence that Israel is deliberately targeting civilians and the infrastructure on which they depend.

Labour also took out the SNP’s simple demand for an “immediate cease-fire,” replacing it with a tortuous call for

an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, which means an immediate stop to the fighting and a ceasefire that lasts and is observed by all sides, noting that Israel cannot be expected to cease fighting if Hamas continues with violence and that Israelis have the right to the assurance that the horror of 7 October 2023 cannot happen again.

Once again, this left Netanyahu and his allies with more than enough rhetorical room for their purposes. They would simply respond by insisting that the only way to ensure the October 7 attacks “cannot happen again” is to eliminate Hamas altogether, no matter how long it takes or how much it costs. Characteristically, Labour said nothing about Palestinians having “the right to the assurance” that the horrors Likud and its coalition partners have inflicted upon them will not happen again.

Starmer was worried that Labour MPs would break ranks and vote for the SNP motion, so he successfully pressured the Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, to take Labour’s amendment as the main motion instead. Hoyle is supposed to be a nonpartisan figure, but he tore up the rules of parliamentary procedure as a favor to Starmer. According to the BBC reporter Nicholas Watt, “senior Labour figures” bragged to him that they threatened to oust Hoyle after the next general election if he didn’t comply with their demands.

Hoyle’s Harvest

No doubt well aware of how bad this looked, Hoyle retrospectively claimed to have acted because he was concerned about the safety of MPs. This was a cynical appeal to a well-established line of argument in the British media that conflates robust criticism of politicians for the decisions they take with abuse or threats of violence.

On the day of the Westminster vote that Hoyle manipulated so brazenly, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament, Paul Sweeney, claimed that his party’s Glasgow constituency office had been “stormed by protestors this afternoon, terrifying and threatening our staff.” However, a journalist from the Scotsman newspaper insisted that there had been “no forcing of doors, no storming” by the pro-Palestine demonstrators: “What I witnessed was peaceful.” Police Scotland also described it as a “peaceful protest” with no arrests.

The lack of evidence adduced in support of Hoyle’s claims did not stop the British commentariat from transforming a controversy about antidemocratic shenanigans into a phony debate that obscured the political issues at stake. Hoyle also supplied an opening for the Conservative Party and its media outriders to pump a fresh torrent of Islamophobic filth into public discourse.

Braverman was emboldened to stick her head above the parapet once again, claiming in an article for the Daily Telegraph that “the Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now.” She also claimed to have been sacked “because I spoke out against the appeasement of Islamists,” rather than because of her responsibility for a drug-fuelled daytime riot in the heart of London.

Another Tory MP, Lee Anderson, took up Braverman’s rhetoric and directed it specifically against Sadiq Khan, who has become a particular hate figure for the British far right because of his Muslim background: “I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan, and they’ve got control of London.”

Anderson went too far by pointing the finger at a national political figure like Khan instead of unnamed “extremists”: he was suspended from the Tory parliamentary group, although he boasted that he had received “lots of support privately” from Conservative MPs, at least one of whom also defended him in public. By now, the focus was shifting to Rochdale, where Labour’s by-election effort was in deep trouble.

The Rochdale Referendum

Rochdale is a town in the vicinity of Manchester with a population of about 110,000 people and a significant Muslim minority. Its parliamentary constituency has opted for Labour in all but one of the general elections held since 1997. In 2019, the party still enjoyed a 20 percent lead over the Conservatives in Rochdale, at a time when other Labour-held seats that had a pro-Leave majority in the Brexit referendum were being lost throughout northern England.

This time around, George Galloway ran a tightly focused campaign that presented the by-election as an opportunity to protest against Labour’s support for the war on Gaza. Feeling the heat from Galloway, the Labour candidate Azhar Ali felt obliged to distance himself from Starmer’s position, but he made a complete mess of it.

Before discussing Ali’s remarks, it is important to note that Labour’s dominant right-wing faction has a well-established modus operandi in dealing with areas like Rochdale or London’s Tower Hamlets. They prefer not to select candidates from a Muslim background who are firmly left-wing because they might take up positions that the party leadership finds uncomfortable, whether that means criticizing the police, opposing the Prevent program, or calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. If they could get rid of existing Labour MPs who fit that profile, such as Zarah Sultana in Coventry or Apsana Begum in east London, they would gladly seize the opportunity to do so.

From their perspective, it is much better to pick a candidate who is not especially ideological and will toe the leadership line — something that could be said of many Labour and Conservative MPs, of course — while using parish-pump clientelist methods to get out the vote at election time. However, this tried-and-tested approach runs into trouble when a politician selected for a record of conformism suddenly has to think on his or her feet.

Ali could have said any number of critical things about Israel that are entirely true and well documented. Instead, he suggested that the Israeli government had advance warning of the October 7 attack but allowed it to go ahead. When the story broke in the national media, the initial response of the Starmer leadership was to stick by Ali because he was a factional ally of theirs.

In contrast, they immediately suspended the left-wing Labour MP Andy McDonald for making the following innocuous statement at a pro-cease-fire rally: “We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.” Another left-wing MP, Kate Osamor, was suspended for describing the mass killing in Gaza as a genocide, at a time when the International Court of Justice had ruled that South Africa’s genocide case was sufficiently plausible to go ahead. McDonald and Osamor have still not been permitted to rejoin Labour’s parliamentary group.

As the controversy over Ali’s comments dragged on, Starmer ultimately had to throw him overboard, but it was too late to pick a new candidate. Ali remained on the ballot paper as Labour’s official representative to rack up a score of 7.7 percent — less than 15 percent of the party’s 2019 vote share. The shambles converted the likelihood of a Galloway victory into a near certainty, and he cruised home with nearly 40 percent of the vote. Labour’s Rochdale fiasco came just weeks after a poll found that support for Labour among Muslims had declined sharply since the last general election.

Galloway’s Cultural Turn

Galloway won first and foremost because Britain’s two main parties are completely unwilling to represent the spectrum of public opinion on Gaza. A critical mass of voters in Rochdale saw his candidacy as the best way to register a protest against that stultifying consensus. Even if he only serves as an MP for a matter of months, losing his seat at the next general election, they will no doubt feel that a vote for Galloway was the right choice in the face of an ongoing massacre.

Could his victory pave the way for a broader electoral intervention on Labour’s left flank, channeling the discontent with Starmer that has already crystallized while his party is still in opposition? That discontent arises from questions of both domestic and foreign policy and is by no means confined to British Muslims.

Before talking about Galloway in particular, we should remember that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it very difficult for smaller parties to win seats. If there is to be a successful challenge to Labour, it is most likely to be concentrated in particular areas with strong candidates and organizational infrastructure to back them up.

Within those limits, Galloway has clearly achieved something notable. This is the third time that he has won a seat at the expense of Labour, in a different constituency each time, after Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012. The Green Party, for example, has only ever taken a seat in one constituency, Brighton Pavilion, across the four elections since 2010. Further back, even at its high point in 1945, the Communist Party could only manage two seats in Scotland and east London.

Galloway’s victories in 2005 and 2012 came under the flag of the Respect Party that he established after being kicked out of Labour for his stand against the invasion of Iraq. Respect’s platform combined left-wing social democracy with a solidly anti-imperialist line during the “war on terror” that Tony Blair embraced wholeheartedly. However, Galloway himself proved to be too erratic and undisciplined to build a party that could transcend his own leadership. Over the years, he alienated most of his allies, including Salma Yaqoob, the Birmingham activist who was the only other Respect candidate to have come close to taking a Westminster seat.

Since then, Galloway has set up a new organization called the Workers Party of Great Britain (WPGB). Its ten-point program is broadly in line with Respect’s platform from two decades ago, but Galloway’s main innovation has been to add a large dose of social conservativism to the mix. In 2021, he described the WPGB as a vehicle for “people who believe in economically radical politics and in socially and culturally conservative politics.” Galloway claimed that this was going against the grain of Starmer’s Labour Party: “Labour took a California turn almost 40 years ago. Class and economic policy became less important to Labour and identity politics and wokeness became the mantra.”

This is plain wrong as a diagnosis of the problems with Labour. Labour’s real turn was toward neoliberalism and the embrace of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. Class and economic policy were just as important as they had ever been, but it was a different set of class interests that its leaders now wanted to advance. The commitment of politicians from the Labour right to social liberalism has only ever been superficial, and they have been perfectly willing to sacrifice one minority group or another in the interests of political expediency. Blair has issued regular warnings about the menace of “wokeism” in recent years that are hard to distinguish from Galloway’s rhetoric.

The idea of being “economically radical but socially conservative” is a false solution to a real problem. In Britain as in many other countries, left-wing forces have been losing ground in smaller towns like Rochdale and among workers who didn’t go to university. A long-term project of reconstruction is needed to bridge the gap between the actually existing left and some of its traditional constituencies. The embrace of social conservativism is bad in principle and more likely to antagonize some of those who already back the Left than it is to win over new supporters.

Defending Democracy

This aspect of Galloway’s political persona played a very limited role in the by-election campaign, which focused heavily on Gaza. The tensions running through his platform are only liable to become an issue if the WPGB establishes itself as a force outside Rochdale. In the absence of candidates with the same profile as its leader, that will be a very tall order, although it’s worth recalling that the outcome in Rochdale itself would have seemed utterly far-fetched just six months ago.

In Tower Hamlets, where Galloway registered his first triumph at Labour’s expense, Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire party swept Labour from office in the 2022 municipal election and has carried out some modest but welcome reforms. Jamie Driscoll is running a lively campaign in England’s North East region after he was barred from running as a Labour candidate for the unforgiveable sin of sharing a platform with film director Ken Loach.

There are also several people elected as Labour MPs in 2019 — notably Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn — who will be giving serious consideration to running again without Labour’s endorsement after Starmer excluded them from his parliamentary group on spurious grounds. The crushing weight of the electoral system doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no room for political actors outside the Labour Party to achieve useful results.

For the protest movement against Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, the time horizon doesn’t even reach as far as the next general election, which is due to be held by the end of the year. Their priority remains what it has been from the very start: to pressure the British government and its loyal opposition to call for an immediate end to Israel’s campaign of mass killing. That effort has now also developed into a vital struggle for the defense of basic democratic rights in Britain itself.