Sir Keir’s Chatham House speech shows exactly where he stands. But, asks Kevin Bean, where will the official Labour left go, given the massive popular movement against Israel’s war on Gaza? An uncertain tincture of courage combines with continued fear for careers and expense accounts
If anyone had any doubts over where Sir Keir Starmer stands in relation to Israel’s war on Gaza, then his Chatham House speech would certainly have removed them: he lines up with US imperialism and the rest of the western imperialist powers in solidly backing the Zionist state’s genocidal assault on the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip. He does not support a ceasefire – that would leave Hamas intact and still a potential threat to Israel – but he is sympathetic to a “humanitarian pause” and relief efforts by the “international community”.
It was, of course, a carefully crafted speech in which there were the obligatory hypocritical references to the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes, combined with cautionary reminders that states should always follow ‘international law’, when launching attacks on civilian populations! Sir Keir is a lawyer, you understand, and he knows all about these things. He also knows about bourgeois politics and, as the leader of British capitalism’s second eleven and widely expected next prime minister, he chose his words judiciously. After all, he has been setting out his stall in this way since becoming Labour leader, demonstrating that his new order really does represent a clear break with the old Corbyn regime.
Sir Keir could do nothing else because he was addressing several different audiences, with the most important being in Washington DC. However, Starmer also wanted to reassure the British capitalist class and the political establishment at home that he could continue to channel his inner Tony Blair by standing firm behind Israel and holding the line, irrespective of internal party criticism or successive mass demonstrations in London against Israel’s war. A little further down the list is the electorate and the various media that frame the limits of acceptable political debate so as to shape ‘public opinion’. In this respect the speech was no different from countless others he had made since 2020, in which he carefully triangulated with the Tories and showed he was a safe pair of hands who could be relied upon to uphold the Atlantic alliance, the capitalist system and the constitutional order.
The speech certainly did its job with the ruling class at home and abroad, receiving positive approval and editorial support where it matters. Noisy protests by anti-war activists simply served to reinforce the message. Labour wants to be the next government, Labour wants to be trusted by the USA no matter who is in the White House.
So in that sense Sir Keir managed to steady the ship, but a lot of questions still remain about how the crisis in Gaza will impact on the Labour leadership and the party as a whole. Let us go back to the Labour conference in early October. The leadership was clearly in control and, apart from some purely symbolic votes on rail and utility nationalisation, the pro-capitalist Labour right swept the board. Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in Starmer’s conference speech, in which he unequivocally backed Israel … and, of course, condemned anti-Semitism. The staged standing ovations and staged applause served to highlight the contrast with previous conferences – was it really only four years ago when delegates waved Palestinian flags and enthusiastically grabbed copies of Labour Party Marxists because of Moshé Machover’s lead article denouncing Israel as a racist endeavour?
Throughout the witch-hunt against the Labour left and the smear campaign to equate anti-Zionism and opposition to Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people with anti-Semitism, the Palestinian cause acquired a huge political significance. The Labour leadership used loyalty to Israel to demonstrate its unswerving fealty to imperialism and the US hegemon, and to draw a clear symbolic boundary between itself and the Labour left, which has been totally cowed for the last four years, having surrendered to the leadership all along the line. Nowhere has this abject cowardice been more openly on display than on the key questions of war and peace in foreign policy – remember the way members of the Socialist Campaign Group withdrew their support from a mildly critical Stop the War statement on Ukraine following the merest hint of Sir Keir’s displeasure?
Initially the same was true about the Labour left’s response to the war on Gaza, with only the most circumspect comments during PMQs in the Commons on the civilian casualties and ‘the humanitarian crisis’ caused by Israeli attacks. So confident was the party leadership and apparat that the official Labour left was servile, quiescent and effectively online. The HQ bureaucracy further clamped down on internal debate on Gaza in Constituency Labour Parties and even banned councillors and MPs from participating in protests against the war. But the huge turnout on local and regional demonstrations, especially the huge numbers in London, the last one being 500,000-strong, that seems to have breathed some little courage into the official Labour left.
The size and character of the demonstrations, drawing in new layers of young people and mobilising the widest sections of the Muslim population, has surely had an impact on the previously quiescent and largely silent Labour left in parliament and beyond. Members of the SCG such as John McDonnell and Andy McDonald have spoken alongside Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, and left trade union leaders Mick Lynch and Mick Whelan on the last two national demonstrations. Other signs of opposition to the leadership’s line have been letters and statements of protest from CLPs and significantly Labour groups in local government. There have also been a large number of resignations from Labour councillors and individual party members, which have had a significant local impact; in Oxford resignations of councillors have cost Labour its majority and control of the local authority.
Starmer’s unequivocal support for Israel’s siege of Gaza and his support in a radio interview on October 11 for cutting water and fuel supplies to the Palestinian population acted a catalyst for much of the criticism, which began to extend beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of the Labour left to include London mayor Sadiq Khan, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
Perhaps the most serious challenges in parliament to Starmer’s line on Gaza was the early-day motion signed by 39 Labour MPs calling for the lifting of the siege, along with a number of other individual statements by Labour frontbenchers calling for a ceasefire. Closer examination of the texts and the nature of the ‘support’ shown, such as retweeting Labour for Palestine statements, shows definite equivocation by shadow cabinet ‘rebels’, but, given the disciplinary measures taken previously against MPs for merely sharing such statements, this growing body of opposition to Starmer does have some real significance.
It seems that the Labour leadership was wrong-footed and initially drew back from confronting the opposition head on – after all it extended far beyond the official left and some in the party’s apparat feared that the usually reliable ‘Muslim vote’ might greatly diminish, with this section of the electorate refusing to back a party so clearly committed to supporting a genocidal attack on the Palestinian people. Some might be tempted, as in 2006, to look elsewhere. Thus, in an attempt to smooth things over, Starmer loyalists spoke publicly about understanding the ‘concerns’ of the critics and hoped that a ‘clarification’ of the leadership’s position could head off the growing criticism. In media briefings before the Chatham House speech Wes Streeting and Chris Bryant prepared the ground by talking about ‘engaging’ with the critics on Gaza and addressing their specific issues.
While there were some nods to the concerns of his critics, combined with the usual platitudes about a “humanitarian pause” and “international law”, Sir Keir’s Chatham House speech was in truth just a restatement of his pro-Israeli stance. Furthermore, in subsequent comments and interviews he doubled down by opposing any talk of a ceasefire and emphasising that his main aim was to support Israel without reservation in its Gaza war and its objective of crushing Hamas, whatever the cost to the civilian population. Just to show that he meant business and that the olive branches he had offered before Chatham House were merely a holding operation, the party bureaucracy followed it up by suspending SCG MP Andy McDonald for a speech he made at the national demonstration on October 28.
McDonald’s crime was to use an amended form of the widely used slogan, ‘Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea’: this slogan, identified by Suella Braverman and other supporters of Israel as ‘an anti-Semitic chant’, was changed by McDonald to read: “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.” In this modified form it can be variously interpreted as supporting a one- or two-state solution, or merely a pacifistic call for an end to violence, but what it most definitely is not is anti-Semitic! However, in drawing on a slogan so dishonestly identified by the leadership as anti-Semitic, McDonald was putting it up to Sir Keir and testing the limits of Starmer’s patience with critics.
We know the political agenda that the pro-capitalist leadership of the Labour Party works to; in terms of Israel’s war in Gaza that has been very clearly set out in the House of Commons, as well as in the Chatham House speech. We also know how the Labour right and their media friends continue to use the big lie equating opposition to Israel’s occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people with anti-Semitism. Starmer will not row back on his pro-imperialist strategy of lining up with the US and ‘the west’: that is one of the cornerstones of his politics and will remain so.
No, the more important question is how the official Labour left will respond to his continued defence of Israel’s war and his attempts to crush opposition to it within the Labour movement. Having discovered the merest hint of a backbone in making the mildest of mild criticisms of the Starmer line, will the SCG and the other remnants of the official left now go further and really open up an attack on his policy? The suspension of Andy McDonald is a real challenge to the Labour left: after three, four years of laying low, of apologising, of grovelling, of advising quietness, will they risk really aligning themselves with the truly massive movement that has sprung into existence against Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza?
All they have to lose are their parliamentary careers, their expense accounts and their not inconsiderable salaries. But there is a world to win l
. www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-times-view-on-sir-keir-starmers-stance-on-the-israel-gaza-conflict-heat-of-battle-x0cdl5ptx; and www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/oct/31/the-guardian-view-on-sir-keir-starmers-speech-it-wont-end-the-divisions-in-labour.
. www.itv.com/news/2023-10-14/labour-leaders-tell-mps-and-council-leaders-not-to-attend-palestine-protests; and skwawkbox.org/2023/10/14/labour-bans-mps-from-attending-pro-palestine-demos-warns-members-they-may-be-expelled.
. www.lbc.co.uk/news/sir-keir-starmer-tries-to-clarify-comments-on-gaza-israel-lbc-interview; and www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/nov/01/hundreds-of-labour-councillors-urge-keir-starmer-to-back-gaza-ceasefire.