Photo: Paul Mattsson
Photo: Paul Mattsson

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1264

The shambolic end to the parliamentary debate on Gaza on Wednesday 21 February reflected the pressure being felt from the anti-war movement on the Tories and Labour, and the widespread anger at their refusal to call for a ceasefire.

Headed by Keir Starmer, Labour’s leaders were desperate to avoid a potentially larger rebellion than happened in November in a similar vote, when 56 Labour MPs voted for a Scottish National Party (SNP) motion calling for an immediate ceasefire. Faced with another SNP motion, Labour altered its stance to itself call for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” while at the same time continuing to satisfy western capitalist interests by applying caveats, including that “Israel cannot be expected to cease fighting” without “assurance that the horror of 7 October 2023 cannot happen again”.

Amidst clashes over voting protocol, the Tories ended up withdrawing their own amendment and Labour’s position was carried by default. It was certainly not an unqualified demand for a ceasefire which is so urgently needed in Gaza, nor did it propose any actions to apply pressure on Israel’s government. However, parliament’s bending to the anti-war mood in society needs to be noted and responded to by forcing them much further, through stepping up anti-war protests and actions.

Today’s thoroughly pro-capitalist Labour Party, Blairism mark two, is showing its right-wing political character on the issue of the Gaza war, as on all other issues. But this doesn’t mean its elected representatives are immune from the views of those who elected them, which is the underlying cause of Labour’s internal divisions regarding the war.

The mass anti-war demonstrations need to be built even larger and strengthened by the trade unions entering fully into the movement – encouraging and mobilising their members to participate and making practical arrangements for them to do so, and calling on young people, students and others to turn out in support. Workers’ actions against the supply of arms and military components being used in the war can be democratically discussed, agreed and implemented, which, together with similar moves internationally, can have a real effect towards forcing an end to the horrific death and destruction being inflicted on Gaza.

Overriding the protocol

Parliamentary protocol was that only the Tory government’s amendment to the SNP’s ‘Opposition Day’ ceasefire motion would be voted on, and not Labour’s. Starmer’s pressing need to prevent Labour MPs from voting for the SNP motion led him to lobby the Speaker (chairperson) Lindsay Hoyle, urging him to break with protocol and allow a vote on Labour’s amendment, which Hoyle dutifully did. Later, under attack for his decision, Hoyle grovelled and apologised, echoing Starmer’s contrived argument that he had only wanted all views to be heard.

In reality, Hoyle was well aware that Labour is on course to form the next government, with the Tories in massive disarray and widely hated, and no doubt he saw it as in the interests of the capitalist establishment and parliament to help Labour’s leaders avoid the setback of a major Labour group division. The tawdry manoeuvring meant that the SNP’s motion wasn’t put to the vote at all, showing that ‘wanting all views to be heard’ was bogus. A few days after the debate, Hoyle withdrew a promise to convene another Gaza debate that he had made to placate the SNP, a further huge relief for Starmer’s Labour.

Accusations of intimidation

A desperate argument put forward by many Labour MPs and echoed by Hoyle was that, if they hadn’t been given the opportunity to vote for their own form of words that included ‘immediate ceasefire’, their personal safety would be at greater risk from a terrorist or other violence. Some referred to the shocking killings of MPs Jo Cox in 2016 and David Amess in 2021. Yet the mass demonstrations, as well as the smaller protests against the Gaza war, have been overwhelmingly peaceful, without injury to any MP during the five months since the war began.

MPs have particularly condemned protest lobbies outside their offices and surgeries as intimidatory, with an incident in November of red paint put on the office of shadow Welsh secretary, Jo Stevens, often cited. But those lobbies are a fully legitimate form of protest and of expressing views to elected representatives. Socialists, along with the overwhelming majority of other anti-war protesters, oppose any threats to the safety of MPs or other elected representatives. At the same time, we firmly reject any attempts to curb the democratic right to protest.

We also oppose accusations of ‘safety threats’ being used as a political machination to paper over support for the war by most Labour MPs, as happened in relation to the debate in parliament. Incidentally, greater involvement by the trade unions in the anti-war movement would help to maintain its peaceful character, as the organised working class would be able to reinforce and play a leading role in the democratic stewarding of protests and demonstrations.

The main source of dangerous division in society is in fact not coming from the anti-war movement and other protests but from the decadent arena of the pro-capitalist parties in parliament itself. This can be seen in the present turmoil at the tops of the Tory party over inflammatory racist comments made by previous Tory home secretary Suella Braverman and recent Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson (now suspended).

Many MPs have also complained about being told they have ‘blood on their hands’ or are ‘complicit’ in the slaughter of civilians in Gaza. MP Tan Dhesi said: “Some people are looking to blame somebody – their MP, councillor, anyone.” Their argument at root – spelt out clearly by some – is that anger against their stance is unjustified because they themselves aren’t in a position to influence the war. That standpoint is at worst outright deception and at best naive. With over 200 MPs, Labour could exert very strong pressure against the Tory government’s policy on the war if it put up real opposition instead of cravenly echoing the Tories. And as Labour is highly likely to win a general election this year, any statements of intent against the war would carry great weight.

As journalist Nesrine Malik pointed out in a recent article published in the Guardian newspaper: “Israel relies on its allies, particularly those with a high international profile and status, to maintain its campaign within the realms of the reasonable and legal”, that is, reasonable and legal in the eyes of those same allies. Israel’s ruling class can’t pursue the war in Gaza regardless of the stance of its allies, including the UK, which are helping to boost Israel’s military arsenal and continuing to support normal trading with Israeli big business.

It is those capitalist interests, and their collision with the interests and views of the majority in society, that lie behind the “bawling bedlam” in parliament on 21 February, a description used by Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer. Tory and SNP MPs ended up walking out of the parliamentary chamber amid vitriolic shouting and cursing, in scenes labelled as ‘hyper-partisan politics’ and ‘point scoring’ by much of the capitalist media. However, much deeper than that, it reflects the fact that none of those pro-capitalist parties have any solutions to offer on international conflicts such as in Israel-Palestine, or regarding any of the domestic concerns and pressures faced by workers in Britain.

George Galloway could receive a sizeable vote in the Rochdale by-election this week as the only anti-war, anti-austerity candidate (see ‘Rochdale by-election: A chance to shake the establishment’). Crucially, beyond that, the Socialist Party is calling for a workers’ list of candidates to be put forward in the coming general election, with the aim of a bloc of MPs being elected who would mark a complete departure from the rottenness of pro-capitalist politics. A bloc that would genuinely represent the views of those who elect them, standing firm on representing workers’ interests in Britain and internationally.