Mainstream politicians are completely out of touch when it comes to Gaza and Palestine

Through the looking glass

Scott Evans spotlights Sir Keir’s desperate balancing act between a pro-Palestine electorate, wobbly MPs and the shifting messages coming from the White House … and the surreal goings on in the Commons

For the first time, Labour, both in Scotland and now in Westminster, has called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. So, has morality triumphed? Can we rest easy, knowing an ‘ethical’ Labour government is on its way?

No, of course not. Sir Keir and the Labour leadership is attempting to balance three related priorities: (1) worried MPs and prospective MPs, who fear for their careers, given a largely pro-Palestine electorate; (2) not upsetting the pro-Zionist lobby and scuppering the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie; and (3) international politics; in other words, loyally echoing Joe Biden and the US state department.

Scottish Labour

This article was originally intended to discuss the Scottish Labour conference motion, before the shitshow around the Scottish National Party’s Gaza motion in the Commons on February 21, and the scramble to bodge procedural rules, so that Labour could put in its own amendment on top of the government’s. We will start by looking at the Scottish Labour conference motion, which provides helpful background.

The conference took place over February 16-18 and had two headline motions: firstly, the one proposed by its women’s conference on “sex-based rights”, which was voted down on the basis of being transphobic, and, secondly, one on Gaza, including a call for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”, which was unanimously supported.1 (Worth noting also is the fairly substantial protest which marched on the venue on February 17, which was addressed by shadow secretary of state for Scotland Ian Murray, who in late 2023 abstained on a vote in the Commons supporting a ceasefire.)

The motion was backed by Scottish Labour leader Anwar Sarwar, who has been taking a slightly tougher stance on the issue than the national party for some time. It began by condemning not only October 7, but the subsequent general devastation, with “over 20,000” Palestinians killed and more than 100 Israelis still “held hostage”. It also affirmed Israel’s right to protect itself “in line with international law”, and called for the complete removal of Hamas in Gaza. In other words, this was a soft Zionist line, not worthy of any praise at all.

But the key call was for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza”. This put the motion to the left of Starmer on the issue - that is, until Starmer himself only a couple of days later came out and called for exactly the same thing! Yes, Starmer stresses a lasting ceasefire, but so does the motion. The motion said that for any ceasefire to last all rocket fire into and out of Gaza must cease, and there must be an “unconditional” release of hostages (note that there was no demand on Israel to release its prisoners). It called for “essential” aid to be restored and its passage “facilitated” in order to create a pathway to a peace process. Finally, there was the call for a two-state solution, in line with US official policy.

I am unsure what changes the motion went through before reaching this final composite made up of submissions from three CLPs, but it was clearly designed to merely signal the presence of a heart in the Labour Party without saying anything substantively different to a generic and directionless ‘Down with this sort of thing’.

Of course, a “sustainable ceasefire”, and variants with the attendant weasel words, are just a respin of the “humanitarian pause” idea - itself not incompatible with initial calls for a ceasefire, since the term ‘ceasefire’ on its own does not say anything about how long it has to last. ‘“Immediate ceasefire” now, but, but, but ...’ is more than the party has committed to before, but so what? This stupid semantic game that Labour and other soft Zionists are playing frankly leaves a bad taste in the mouth - while Palestinians continue to be driven from their homes, starved and killed on such a huge scale.

SNP motion

Enter the SNP motion, put before the Commons, which has since caused quite a commotion. It was more unequivocal, not containing all the qualifications of the Scottish Labour motion. It called for an immediate ceasefire, pointed out that the vast majority of the 28,000 killed by Israel are women and children, and noted the 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah. In the end, Labour submitted an awfully wordy amendment, which crucially removed the reference to Israel’s “collective punishment” - illegal under international law. The problem for Starmer here was that the Scottish Labour motion also called a spade a spade on this - one of its few positive points: “there is no justification for the collective punishment of 2.2 million citizens in Gaza”.2

Labour’s amendment to the motion also called on Israel not to go ahead with a ground assault in Rafah - in line with statements coming out of the Biden administration. Not that the US or the UK will ever put any teeth into such pleas: eg, by threatening to halt arms supplies. Besides this, it added the two-state solution, the necessity of a safe and secure Israel, and ‘but’ clauses very similar to those in the original Scottish Labour motion. Rumour had it that Labour would be calling for its MPs to abstain on the SNP’s motion and vote for its own amendment, but proceedings never got that far.

Last November, 56 Labour MPs defied the whip to back the SNP’s motion on ... you guessed it, supporting a ceasefire, like Labour says it does now. This time, whether or not more retribution occurs was almost literally up to the speaker of the Commons, Lindsay Hoyle (formerly a Labour MP). Would he take the government’s or both the government’s and Labour’s amendment? According to precedent, if only one is taken, it must be the government’s. Without Labour’s own amendment many Labour MPs may have felt compelled to vote for the SNP motion (either on principle or otherwise!) - spurred on by Scottish Labour’s motion the prior weekend. Abstaining after that - not to mention the huge demonstrations across the country - would have been rather embarrassing. And, with rumours of an even larger revolt than previously of up to 100 MPs (including at least two shadow cabinet members), tensions were high.

As it happened, Hoyle decided to say hell to precedent and allow Labour’s and the government’s amendment3 (which meant knocking from the agenda the SNP’s second motion, on green investment - to jeers from MPs). This was after procedural delays caused by Labour, and was followed by more delays after both the SNP’s and Tories’ furious reaction to this decision.4

The clerk of the house, Tom Goldsmith, has called all this a “substantial breach of the standing orders or a departure from long-established conventions”, while Tory William Wragg tabled a vote of no confidence in the speaker. Hoyle left the chaos to the poor old deputy speaker. Tory Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House, said the government would play no further part in the proceedings, and a vote for parliament to sit in private was overwhelmingly rejected, Hoyle returned to defend his decision, and the Labour amendment was passed amid an SNP and Tory walkout with no further vote on the motion itself … later, of course, he grovellingly apologised.

It seems to have been quite easy for some to forget, in all the excitement, that this was a vote ostensibly on preventing Israel continuing its genocidal war on Gaza and the Palestinians more broadly. What we saw in the Commons though was nothing even approaching democratic: it was a clown show. Which of the Tories, Labour and SNP is the sensible party of democracy and freedom?

Broader context

No doubt street demonstrations and other acts of solidarity help get things on the political agenda which would otherwise have been ignored or delayed. They encourage politicians with half a backbone to go against the easy career option, and convince them to stick their neck out.

Some on the left just glibly declare5 - without evidence or reason - that this or that shift in government is due to this or that demonstration and therefore we just need to carry on street/strike action to ‘keep up the pressure’ until (one fateful day) along comes the revolution.

Needless to say, a substantial part of what is going on here has little to do with Gaza itself. Many SNP MPs and MSPs, I am sure, do care - certainly Scottish first minister Humza Yousaf, whose own family has been directly affected. But they knew what effect it would have on Labour, while Labour itself would not be walking the current tightrope without the need to placate the USA and the capitalist class.

“Humanitarian pause”, “immediate ceasefire”, “sustainable ceasefire”, “just and lasting peace” - all these have get-out clauses. But that is not the point: whatever words Starmer’s Labour uses, none of it changes the fact that the UK is subordinate to the USA on questions of foreign policy. The US could reverse the various exceptions the UK enjoys to the USA’s global system of imperialist subordination and reduce the UK from a willing client state to an unwilling one. Over-focusing on the demand for those in positions of power to make some gesture, some statement, to disassociate from individual X or condemn organisation Y is a reflection of a highly media-focussed form of politics.

  1. I struggled to find a copy, except on Twitter: twitter.com/paulhutcheon/status/1758182763499270187/photo/1.↩︎

  2. Lest we forget, the SNP is not to the left of Labour on everything. It is currently being attacked by Labour in Scotland for not supporting a windfall tax on energy companies.↩︎

  3. More or less. The Tory amendment was only to be heard if Labour’s was voted down. Though this clearly incentivised the Tories to vote against Labour’s, not that they wouldn’t have anyway.↩︎

  4. Murray had the cheek to try and characterise this as the SNP and Tories playing games, while the adults-in-the-room Labour are trying to get on with serious business: twitter.com/IanMurrayMP/status/1760377273163632945.↩︎

  5. Eg, socialistworker.co.uk/palestine-2023/labour-ceasefire-vote.↩︎