Menu Close

How the war on Palestine is shattering Labour

Share This Article:

Picture: Guy Smallman / October, 2023 – A protest against Labour leader Keir Starmer’s speech at Chatham House last month. Thousands of members have left the party, and scores of councillors have resigned. Some of them are so furious with Keir Starmer that they have torn up their Labour Party cards, the writer says

By Isabel Ringrose

Keir Starmer’s unwavering support for Israel’s assault on Gaza has detonated a much wider debate among socialists and campaigners.

Starmer’s leadership of the party has seen increasing disaffection from sections of the membership. But nothing previously has been on the scale of resignations from the party.

There is now open dissent even among some who supported his attacks on the left. Among those quitting the party are 11 councillors from Burnley, including their Labour group and council leader, Afrasiab Anwar.

Anwar quit Labour days after calling for Starmer to resign. “Where do you draw the line? How many more people die before enough is enough?” he told Socialist Worker.

“I’ve tried every angle to make change from within. But the Labour Party is not listening. I couldn’t do it anymore. We didn’t have a voice. I can be a bigger voice for this cause and speak up outside rather than inside.”

Anwar explained he tried “everything” to get the leadership to change their stance. “We went to MPs, shadow cabinet members and we wrote to Starmer,” he said.

“Nothing worked. I spoke to my colleagues and explained where I was at — and they all left with me. They couldn’t do it anymore either.”

Even councillors who have implemented local government spending cuts and seen Starmer batter the left have had enough.

Anwar was a Labour Party member for ten years, and a councillor for six. He has been leader of the council for over two years. “I’ve been a Labour supporter all my life. I’m a socialist and Unison union member. This has not been an easy decision,” he explained.

“Good councillors up and down the county who have served their communities for 30 to 40 years are resigning, including in Burnley,” he said.

“If we can call out Russia for breaking international law in Ukraine, why are we not doing it with Israel in Palestine — it’s hypocrisy.”

Councillor Shah Hussain is deputy mayor for Burnley and quit Labour too. “Calling for Starmer to resign was a last effort to get him to change his line,” he told Socialist Worker.

“Even the United Nations is calling for a ceasefire. But Starmer is just following the government.”

Hussain said the decision to leave was “very difficult”. “I’ve been a member for 25 years. But I stand in solidarity with my colleagues. Today we have a government that talks of banning marches and says pro-Palestine events are antisemitic. Starmer has not taken the right stance,” he said.

As well as the resignation of around 50 councillors, there’s also dissent at the top of Labour, including from many who have loyally gone along with Starmer over other issues.

At least 18 frontbenchers — although no shadow cabinet members — have backed the call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

This is the minimal demand that Starmer refuses to advance. And Imran Hussain, MP for Bradford East, resigned as a shadow minister “with a heavy heart” over the party’s position on Palestine.

More resignations are possible this week if there is a vote in parliament on a ceasefire as was expected on Wednesday. It will be put forward by the Scottish National Party.

An internal Labour script seen by the Guardian instructs party whips to be firm with frontbenchers, and “point out that if Labour was in government they would have to vote against” such a motion.

“Supporting the SNP motion would undermine the Labour Party in Scotland and isn’t in line with our policy position. We will therefore not be supporting the SNP motion,” whips tell MPs.

Palestine has also been the trigger for three councillors in Haringey, north London, to break from Labour and form the Independent Socialist Group.

They say “We believe that we can best represent residents in our wards and the people of Haringey more generally free of the shackles of the Labour whip.

“Labour nationally, and in London, is becoming ever more authoritarian towards its members.”

The three say each of them has “specific differences with Labour under Keir Starmer’s leadership”. These include the exclusion of Jeremy Corbyn MP from the Parliamentary Labour Party, what they say is the “gerrymandering of the selection of Labour council candidates in Haringey” and “the abandonment by Starmer of the ten progressive pledges he published in his leadership campaign”.

The three add, “We were all particularly concerned that Labour, under Starmer, having commissioned a report by Martin Forde KC examining allegations of racism within the Party has essentially ignored all of Forde’s 165 recommendations.

“Forde established that there was a hierarchy of racism within the Labour Party which is very disturbing to us as councillors in one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country.”

Why Labour always fails test of imperialism

Everyone in the Labour Party, those who are leaving, and everyone who supports Palestinian freedom should look at the roots of Keir Starmer’s betrayals.

Some will want to avoid any such reckoning. Imran Hussein, for example, the MP who resigned as a shadow minister, was quick to insist that he “remained committed to Labour’s agenda”.

Starmer’s position stands entirely in the tradition of a century of Labour support for Zionism. It also fits with a broader approach towards the state, empire and how to win change.

Labour, and all similar reformist parties, seeks to achieve change by taking over the existing state machine. They have all, whether left- or right-wing versions, sought to be the alternative government of the British capitalist state.

When the Tories become too unpopular and the clamour for change is overwhelming, Labour can be relied on to take over and try to smother strikes and protests.

At all key points Labour puts nation before class interests. This means it backs the British state’s wars and its imperial projects — such as the support for Israel. From dumping its leader because he did not enthusiastically back the First World War to Starmer today, Labour has followed that pattern.

Clement Atlee’s 1945 government developed Britain’s first atomic bomb without telling the cabinet ministers, let alone MPs — or the voters who had elected them.

Labour was also wedded to British colonial rule. Minister Herbert Morrison had described self-government in colonies as “ignorant dangerous nonsense” saying it was like giving a child “a latch key, bank account and shotgun”.

A huge revolt for independence forced the Labour government to give up India. But it did so in a way that guaranteed partition into two states. The resulting bloodshed saw the deaths of up to a million people.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950 Britain immediately sent troops to support the US intervention. British forces played a major role in defeating popular risings in Greece, Malaya and Vietnam.

In 1965, Harold Wilson’s government pledged its full support for the US’s bloody invasion of Vietnam. While Wilson refused to send troops due to pressure from the anti-war movement, he gave his backing for the US’s campaign and proclaimed Britain as the US’s ally.

In 1982 Argentina took back the Falkland Islands from British control. The Falklands, a relic of British imperialism, had never concerned any modern British government.

But then prime minister Margaret Thatcher saw an opportunity to create an atmosphere of patriotic unity. Labour leader Michael Foot played a crucial role. Instead of opposing the dispatch of British troops and ships, Foot demanded more military action.

He was a veteran Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament member and described himself as a “inveterate and incurable peace monger”.

But as the Commons was recalled for a special debate, Foot rose to say that the Falkland Islanders “have been betrayed. The responsibility for the betrayal rests with the government. The government must now prove by deeds — they will never be able to do it by words — that they are not responsible for the betrayal and cannot be faced with that charge.”

It was a similar story under war criminal Tony Blair’s government. The “war on terror” saw Britain join the US in invading Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The consequences of these wars are still wrecking lives in the region today.

Even under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour couldn’t break from its support for Nato and militarism.

Corbyn twice went into a general election committed to renewing Trident nuclear missiles — the summit of imperial butchery.

It’s good to see revolt in Labour now. But it is simultaneously the biggest revolt so far and a highly limited one where most of those speaking out also stay committed to the party that has produced such horrors.

While individuals, and for a time the leader, may hold strong anti-war sentiments, Labour will always be rooted in and loyal to state violence and destruction.

Any who stand against slaughter and bloodshed should turn their backs on Labour for good and build a real anti-imperialist alternative that is not slavish to the needs of the system.

Where are the Labour left MPs?

If Labour MPs and councillors can’t stand up to Starmer’s support for murder in Palestine then they will fail every other serious test.

Yet the vast majority stay silent. They might mutter in private and say to their friends that Starmer is awful.

But the project of winning elections and holding on to position comes first.

Imran Hussain had the principle to resign as a minister, but that may well be because he was Labour’s candidate in the Bradford West by-election in 2012, when he lost to George Galloway. He is a member of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group.

But the other three members of the group who are frontbenchers were still there at the start of this week.

If Labour people don’t stand out loud, clear, firm and from the beginning against murder in Gaza, they will never resist the immeasurably greater pressures coming.

The bosses’ class is against any attempt to impose economic policies they don’t want, let alone achieve socialism.

This article was first published on Socialist Worker, UK