British Elections and the Gaza War

By contrast with the surprise parliamentary elections in France, those in the UK planned on July 4th were due this year. In the context of mass mobilisations in solidarity with Gaza since October 2023, the political field is recomposed. The Labour Party and its leader Keir Starmer, likely to win, appear to have become more fragile due to their largely pro-Israeli stance, and pay the price of the witch hunt against former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2018.

During a demonstration in London on 8 June 2024
Alisdare Hickson / Flickr

In the United Kingdom, the traditional two-party situation opposing Conservatives to the right and Labour to the left is increasingly challenged. While the representative of the far right, Nigel Farage of the Reform UK party is still largely seen as a clown, the situation on the left has been different. In the absence of a large meaningful left-wing party, when Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party in 2015, thousands of left wingers joined it, and the party reached its largest size since the 1970s with more than half a million members. After the 2019 electoral defeat, the new leadership headed by Keir Starmer, a lawyer specialised in human rights, not only turned the party to the right but actively excluded as many left-wing members as it could, many of them accused of anti-Semitism, even though many of those excluded are anti-Zionist Jews, for example Naomi-Wimborne-Idrisi and Rica Bird. Both appeared on a devastating series of programmes on Al Jazeera in 2023 focusing on the anti-Corbyn campaign1. This witch hunt has led to a drop in membership to 366,000 by March 2024. Labour expelled its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a firm supporter of Palestine, with baseless accusations of anti-semitism. He is now standing as an independent in the London area which he has represented for decades and has actively participated in the pro-Palestinian movement in recent months.

Not a Labour win

Firmly aligned with neoliberal ideology, since October Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has also maintained an unreconstructed pro-Israeli stance for many months, refusing to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and accusing all pro-Palestinians of being anti-Semitic, following the official fundamentally distorting definition which asserts than any anti-Israeli position is anti-Semitic. Within days of the Israeli assault on Gaza, more than 20 local councillors (nine of them in Oxford where this author resides) resigned from the party because of Starmer’s pro-Israeli statements in Parliament and in the media. More resigned in the following months throughout the country. Many of them are Muslim, most are not.

With the looming election, the Labour Party is almost certain of forming the next UK government. This is not because of a programme remotely smacking of socialism or focused on the concerns and interests of most of the population, but rather because the Conservative Party around Rishi Sunak is completely discredited after 14 years of rule, with the last four being a series of unmitigated disasters of far-right extremism and incompetence marked, among others, by anti-immigration and racist policies.

Contrary to Corbyn’s slogan ‘for the many, not the few’, Starmer calls for the meaningless ‘change’ while assuring big business that it will not suffer under Labour and that there will be no tax increases for anyone, including the super-rich. He has ditched the Party’s previous environmental protection policies and supports increased military spending, so, it is not the case that the Labour Party will win the election, but rather that the divided, increasingly chaotic Conservatives will lose it.

The cost of being pro-Israeli

Enter the Gaza war. Starmer has alienated thousands, possibly millions, of British Muslims and others horrified by the genocide in Gaza, by his support of Israel and refusal to even call for a cease-fire as thousands of Palestinian children, women and men are massacred. In recent polls, 44% of Muslim voters consider a party’s position on Palestine as a top five issue affecting their choice2, while 86% of Labour voters support an immediate cease fire3. Starmer also represses any alternative views even among the party’s leadership and MPs. In February, he finally called for a cease-fire but avoided the word ‘immediate’ thus making the call meaningless. He caused parliamentary chaos by manipulating procedures to avoid being defeated by the numerous Labour MPs who were no longer able to sustain the hypocrisy of the UK in the war and threatened to rebel and vote against his motion.

In the following months, Starmer tried to repair his relationship with the Muslim communities in anticipation of the election, as the Muslim vote could swing several parliamentary seats, mainly in England’s Midlands and North. But his, at best half-hearted, calls for a cease-fire ring hollow alongside his support for Israel’s right to ‘self-defence’ and continued support for UK arms sales which contribute to the massacres.

In the election, there are at least 18 independents standing against Labour candidates on platforms which include support for Palestine, either as the sole or one of the main issues. These obviously include Jeremy Corbyn but also others who have been unceremoniously expelled from the party due to their calls for an immediate cease-fire and condemnation of the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Andrew Feinstein, an active anti-Zionist and former MP in South Africa is standing against Starmer in his own constituency. Others include Faiza Shaheen standing in Chingford and Woodford Green who was deselected by Labour during the campaign. In three Birmingham constituencies, pro-Palestinian candidates are standing against sitting Labour MPs: Kamel Hawwash and Akhmed Yakoob are standing as independents, while Jody McIntyre is standing for George Galloway’s maverick ‘Workers’ Party of Britain’ (a vocal pro-Palestinian group but also apologetic of Bashar al-Assad and previously of Saddam Hussein) but is a long-standing supporter of Palestine.

Popular marches in support of Gaza

Some of these candidates may win the seats they contest. They are certainly very much in tune with popular opinion. For the first time ever, anti-war and pro-peace mass demonstrations are regular weekly events throughout the country. Local demonstrations throughout the UK include weekly solidarity pickets, marches and vigils. Fifteen enormous national demonstrations in London have been held since last October: one of them brought 800,000 people in the streets, all of them more than 100,000. Even in 1968, the pro-Vietnamese demonstrations were by no means so frequent and the only time more than a million people demonstrated in London was in 2003, against the forthcoming US/UK attack on Iraq.

Despite official propaganda accusing participants of being anti-Semitic, violent and, as one right-wing conservative minister put it, ‘hate marches’, the reality is very different, reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Participants come with children, including toddlers in push chairs, others with their pet dogs. Friendliness and politeness are the dominant mood, with help and support for those less able to walk, in wheelchairs or with sticks or crutches. Most interactions with the police are friendly, despite the vast numbers of both demonstrators and police.

The main slogans are ‘Cease-fire now!’, ‘Free Palestine’, ‘Stop arming Israel’, and ‘We are all Palestinians’. Participants of all ages come from all over the country and include self-identified Jews mostly pointing out that they are Jews against the Israeli actions and in solidarity with Gazans. There are always small teams of orthodox Jews, ensuring their visibility by their clothing and slogans. The absence of Labour Party and major trade union banners is striking, though a few local groups have broken with the instructions from their HQs.

Among the many interesting aspects of these demonstrations is their social composition. Most participants are of Muslim appearance [women wearing head scarves, bearded men wearing South Asian attire]. The age distribution seems to be dominated by younger adults, and many of the older participants may well have a long history of marching from the CND and anti-Vietnam War period. Unlike many of these events, in the current and sustained extraordinary movement, it would seem that the educated middle class are not the dominant force, with a strong presence of otherwise marginalised groups, rarely seen on explicitly political demonstrations.

The extent of mobilisation against the Israeli assault on Gaza is unprecedented in the UK, and it is the first time such a determined and consistent mass movement has taken place at all, let alone focused on an issue of international politics. While it is unlikely to have much influence on the current [or future] UK government’s pro-Israeli policy, it may well bring a few pro-Palestinian Members of Parliament and may also enable a few members of smaller parties to squeeze through a divided labour vote, thus reducing what is predicted to be the overwhelming majority of the Labour Party. This might influence that government to be less aligned with the neo-liberal agenda and hopefully be less biased in favour of Israel concerning Palestine, an issue which, once again, has come to the forefront of international attention.