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Waiting for Starmer


It’s been a strange start to the year in UK politics. The Labour Party finally backed a ceasefire in Gaza, while it once again ran into trouble over claims of Antisemitism.

Keir Starmer. Labour Party Conference, October 2023.

This time, it’s the Rochdale by-election, where Labour defended Blairite candidate Azhar Ali after he was caught making conspiratorial claims about 7 October.

This was before Keir Starmer suddenly hit the eject button and sent Ali soaring over Rochdale. The damage is done. Labour loses in Rochdale, no matter who wins.

The story in the wider country is very different: Labour looks certain to form the next government.

Starmer yearns to wield real power, and the signs of what he will do with it are not good.

Josh White, with the second edition of his UK election diary.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Hi, I’m Josh White, and you’re listening to Left To Burn, the podcast of The Battleground.

This is my pre-election diary.

Welcome to episode two.

It feels as though the race has already started, even though it’s yet to even be announced, and we don’t even have a date for when the general election will actually be held.

It’s nonetheless been an intense start to the year in UK politics.

The Labour Party has finally been forced to back a ceasefire in the Gaza War, albeit on convoluted terms full of caveats and in a process riddled with controversy and contradiction.

But this comes after months of pretending to be neutral, all the while supporting the Israeli government’s actions. So it’s worth unpacking and taking apart one of two recent fiascos, as we might call them, one being the selection or de-selection of the Labour candidate for Rochdale, which came not long before the ceasefire vote.

Ostensibly, the Labour leadership has changed its position and adopted a formal ceasefire policy.

However, this is not the full picture because, of course. The Labour leadership is also pretending it has even changed its position.

Starmer would want you to believe that his position has been consistent since October, that he has always been in favour of international law, and that he has always favoured some sort of humanitarian outcome, whether it be via a ceasefire or truce.

And yet we know that Starmer’s speeches have not mentioned the word ceasefire until, I think, January, and he has consistently opposed the ceasefire calls up until that time.

I think December was the changing point.

The recent vote in Parliament was an opposition day where the opposition parties are allowed to put forward their own motions rather than the government.

In this case, it was an SNP opposition day. The SNP has been consistently calling for a ceasefire since the beginning of the war from what I know, and certainly attempted to secure such a vote in Parliament in mid-November, which, of course, Labour abstained upon.

In this case, Labour decided it could support the SNP motion provided it went ahead with its amendment, the amendment specifying a special twist on the ceasefire, and Labour preferring its own phrasing, i.e. immediate humanitarian ceasefire, not to be confused with regular ceasefire.

Apparently this is a different kind of ceasefire to the kind where both sides in the war agree to stop fighting.

It’s hard to actually figure out what the difference is going by the press coverage. But one Guardian report explained, rather revealingly, that the amendment specifies that there can be no ceasefire for as long as Hamas threatens violence against Israel.

In other words, it leaves open a convenient loophole for the war to continue.

Thus, it’s still possible for Starmer to pretend that his position has simultaneously changed and not changed to different audiences.

Of course, Labour advisers briefed ahead of his speech on this matter (said) that his position really hadn’t changed, that the ceasefire call was still off the table, at least on the terms of the SNP.

But when it came to the vote, we found that the Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, put forward the Labour amendment in a shocking breach of protocol, effectively helping secure Labour’s version of the motion and helping to prevent any kind of rebellion that Starmer may have faced had he been forced to oppose the SNP motion.

This is all very complicated and all very boring to people who aren’t political hobbyists.

That point has been made very clear repeatedly by political hobbyists.

But more interestingly, Nick Watts at the BBC tweeted that senior Labour figures had briefed him that the Speaker of the House was threatened with being removed after the election if he didn’t do Starmer’s bidding.

And, of course, Starmer audibly thanked Hoyle in Parliament after the controversial decision was made.

So now there are very serious questions about the independence of the Speaker of the House. But rather than face up to those questions, Hoyle claimed the day after that he supported this amendment for fear of terrorist attacks and assassinations of MPs, or at least that was the implication of his words.

All of this comes after months of protests and pressure directed at the government and the Labour Party.

So it’s very convenient that Labour and the Speaker of the House have managed to cover their arses and declare that the real threat is Islamic extremists threatening to murder MPs if they don’t get their way.

But there’s a slight problem with that narrative in that it’s not immediately obvious why a softer amendment to the SNP motion would prevent Islamist terror attacks against Labour MPs.

It’s also not particularly believable.

To put it bluntly, we’re supposed to believe that Labour was preventing terrorism or saving lives by amending a motion, having already dragged its political record through the muck with Muslim voters for several months now.

We’re supposed to believe that Labour MPs, in particular, are facing death threats up and down the country, and mobs of Islamists are at their doors as we speak. But the truth is likely to be more banal.

Yes, there have been some threats and intimidation in some cases, from what we can tell. But the idea that this is an all-pervasive phenomenon directed at Labour MPs at this time is less believable going by the evidence.

It’s also clear that these incidences are few and far between but also not directed by any of the major antiwar movements or by any of the big protest campaigns behind Palestine solidarity, let’s say.

It’s also true that the Islamic extremist element of the demonstrations has been regularly exaggerated for the sake of shoring up support for the Israeli war machine.

It’s all you can hear about on Twitter from right-wing pundits. Apparently, Islamist hate marches are now the norm throughout Britain. And we have regular Antisemitic riots every Saturday.

This is the impression that you’ll get from reading people like Douglas Murray or Mary Harrington, (and) Louise Perry. Quite a long list of people actually.

I could go on and on listing them, but I digress.

So what has happened, in short, is the Labour Party managed to pressure the Speaker of the House to do its bidding and is now covering for its leadership and for the Speaker by playing into Islamophobic narratives in the media about these protests.

And we’re all supposed to line up behind it and pretend that the MPs are the real victims.

Meanwhile, the death count in Gaza has reached and will no doubt exceed 30,000, and the Israeli army is poised for the invasion of Rafah, a situation which could spill over into Egypt, (and) could further destabilise the entire region.

God forbid that be questioned. God forbid that be opposed in the mainstream. God forbid the vast majority of people who support a ceasefire have a voice in mainstream politics.

But this isn’t the only thing to reflect on right now. We’ve also got the ongoing by-election campaign in Rochdale. This is fiasco number two.

So to recap, the Labour candidate Azhar Ali, a staunch Blairite and himself, in fact, a former Blair advisor for many years, was brought down by a controversy about his remarks regarding the war in Gaza not long after the October 7th attacks last year.

Mr Ali claimed that Israel had advanced knowledge of the October 7th massacres and didn’t lift a finger to stop them.

This, of course, is a highly conspiratorial claim with a long, unpleasant history behind it, and it plays into certain tropes which I think don’t need to be spelt out.

But what was unusual about this case was the response by the Labour leadership.

Team Starmer defended Ali because he had apologised for his comments, and they doubled down.

They ensured that their own political allies backed Ali (and) defended him in public.

Starmer defended him in public.

But it’s also significant that they managed to get Jewish MPs and Jewish organisations, and former Jewish politicians to defend Ali.

This included people like Louise Ellman, who stepped down during the Corbyn years, claiming she was being targeted by Antisemites within the party.

The fact that she was facing a no-confidence vote in her own seat was kind of neither here nor there in that narrative.

The fact that she was facing a no-confidence vote in the area was irrelevant, apparently. But of course, this didn’t last long because the media wasn’t going to let up because of the obvious contradiction.

Starmer claimed to have cleaned house, to have cleaned up (the) Labour Party’s record on Antisemitism.

He had obviously purged certain Corbynites and had purged Corbyn himself over claims of Antisemitism and over the EHRC report into Antisemitism in the party.

But this was a blatant case of Starmer supporting someone who had said something Antisemitic, or at least potentially Antisemitic, because he was on his side in the bitter factional disputes of Labour’s recent past.

It turned out that you could be Antisemitic or come out with certain comments provided you were in the right faction of the Labour Party.

And some people on the left of the party have been saying this for quite some time:

That, on the one hand, Antisemitism on the left of the Labour Party was exaggerated and weaponised for political gain. And, on the other hand, the Labour right was quite happy to forgive and forget any instance of Antisemitism or any other bigotry for that matter within its own ranks.

Indeed, the same rules did not apply to the Blairites and the Brownites that applied to the Corbynites

So, after a few days of this controversy dragging on, Labour pulled a U-turn.

Starmer decided to remove Ali from the selection.

The party would no longer endorse him as their candidate, even though if he wins, he will technically be a Labour member and a Labour MP.

The party will have to withdraw the whip and expel him from the Parliamentary Labour Party upon his immediate entry.

So this is quite farcical. But it gets even more farcical.

The good people of Rochdale now face a choice between three former Labour candidates.

First, Azhar Ali, who has just been given the boot for Antisemitic comments or for allegedly Antisemitic comments.

Another is George Galloway, who was kicked out of Labour almost 20 years ago for comments about the Iraq War.

And the third, Simon Danchuk, is a former Labour MP for the area itself, who was kicked out of the party for texting a 17-year-old lewd remarks, let’s say.

Most likely, it will go to Azhar Ali or George Galloway going by the polls right now, but either way, Labour loses.

Labour may be quietly hoping for Galloway to win just to avoid further embarrassment.

The party will be withdrawing the whip if Ali wins, and this will cause a further reminder of the trouble that they just had.

And then they’ll have to select a new candidate to run against him in the general election, again reigniting further local controversy and dragging up this story in the middle of the election campaign.

It’ll be far easier for Labour to run a candidate against Galloway, who has a lot of baggage that they can play on.

After all, this is the guy who is on camera praising Saddam Hussein.

This is the guy who is on record making dodgy comments about the Israeli government and about Israel generally.

This is the guy on record praising dictators such as Bashar al-Assad.

It’s very easy for the liberal Left to rally against someone like Galloway.

Of course, the reasons why Galloway speaks to a certain constituency in the country are worth exploring.

Galloway is a tremendous orator, arguably one of the best public speakers to have stepped foot in Parliament in the last 40 years.

He comes out of the radical antiwar left, and his politics are trenchantly anti-imperialist.

He’s also cultivated a significant media presence, which has given him serious name recognition in the country at large.

He’s one of the few people that can be relied upon to make the case for the Palestinians in the public space. And he does so from a very much 1970s post-Maoist perspective. Which is very much anti-imperialist, very much part of that kind of vein of leftism that is no longer the kind of garden-variety politics of the radical left these days.

At the same time, Galloway’s politics have changed and become something quite different.

Yes, he’s running for Muslim voters in Rochdale, and he’s playing to very real concerns and grievances about the Gaza war and also about economic injustice and inequality in Britain, especially in the north of England.

But he’s also the guy who has pivoted towards culture war rhetoric, towards anti-wokery on matters such as sex and gender in particular.

He was once the MP who was awarded by Stonewall for his record of voting on gay rights.

But he is now putting forward Antitrans talking points and arguing for more culturally conservative and socially conservative positions.

He has adopted a more socially conservative agenda.

He would maintain he’s always been the same guy, and he was never socially liberal. There’s some truth in this.

Galloway was always anti-abortion, anti-gambling, anti-alcohol, always had a tone of religiosity about him, and his anti-imperialism always had a kind of realpolitik aspect to it, which was always very compatible with a certain kind of conservative politics. The truth is that Galloway is no revolutionary anymore.

He is a conservative social democrat.

His party, the Workers Party of Britain, is a strange but revealing platform. It has red, white and blue insignia.

It’s partly an alliance of the usual suspects around Galloway, but it’s also a project formed with the Communist Party of Britain ML.

ML meaning Marxist-Leninist.

That refers to the anti-revisionist version of Marxism-Leninism.

If you know anything about the sectarian minutiae of British leftism, you’ll know that this is a fringe organisation formed by people who defend the legacy of Stalin, who defend North Korea, and who hold a special place in their hearts for China today.

And, of course, Galloway has always had a kind of anti-revisionist strain to his politics, even though he was a Labour MP for many, many years.

This strange history behind Galloway’s current positions is not what will attract many voters.

What does attract them is his ability to speak to their concerns and grievances and give voice to their anger right now at a time when the Labour Party is failing to oppose the government line on the Gaza war.

Meanwhile, the Tory government is still moribund, with Rishi Sunak playing the role of lame-duck prime minister. Reform UK continues to stalk the Conservative Party’s safe seats in leafy southern England.

And the Labour Party is as complacent as ever when it comes to the big issues of the day.

Sunak is still hoping to save himself with tax cuts. But it won’t work. It’s too late. He’s done.

I won’t waste too much time going over the Conservative Party’s failures here. I’ve said enough about it for now.

What Labour will do, or rather… won’t do, matters more in a way.

It’s clear from the last couple of weeks that Starmer is not going to be radical on foreign policy or even progressive.

He may be pushed to make mild concessions here and there, but ultimately, he will try his best to maintain establishment positions.

And this is true broadly of his entire project.

Starmer has even been celebrated by the Financial Times for his love of big business.

He has rowed back on pledges to invest £28 billion into green infrastructure, and this was a compromise already.

It seems plausible that the next Labour government could run out of goodwill very quickly, especially if it’s faced with a raft of crises it can’t manage.

What answers does Starmer have for people struggling with the cost of living?

What answers does he have for the people of Gaza?

What answers does he have for people crossing the Channel?

Or indeed, the people who want to deport them to Rwanda?

It seems likely that the scenes we saw in Parliament, the chaos, the confusion, the strange rumours of meddling and threatening and anti-democratic conduct, will probably be the norm under the coming Starmer regime.

Despite Starmer’s image and his record as a human rights lawyer, it’s clear that the man has soft authoritarian tendencies.

He’s been happy to marginalise and purge anyone who opposes him within the Labour Party, whether it be party members, MPs, shadow cabinet ministers; basically anyone who will challenge him or take a different line on any political issue.

And this is why Starmer’s problems with foreign policy will continue.

The Gaza war isn’t going to end. The protests will continue, the pressure will continue.

And that’s probably why he’s decided to make a concession and then pivot to demonising the protests as inherently violent and threatening and somehow connected with radical Islam.

But this is a dangerous turn to take.

At the same time, the right has been making much more vociferous calls for protests to be banned, and have been making the connection with Islamism since October.

Indeed, every single demonstration has been smeared as somehow Antisemitic, as somehow pro-terrorist, as somehow in favour or in league with Hamas.

And this shows no sign of ending any time soon because, of course, the actual facts of the situation, as some call it in Israel-Palestine, can’t even really be discussed.

Once you discuss the history of the occupation, it’s clear that one side is in the wrong and one side is in the right.

One side is an oppressor, and one side is the oppressed.

Once you’ve looked at the history of the occupation, it’s hard to pretend that the Palestinians aren’t oppressed, and it’s hard to pretend that the Israelis haven’t been oppressing them.

And that’s why we’ll end up talking about whether or not the demonstrations are pro-terrorist and whether or not they should be banned rather than say why we’re selling arms to Israel.

But Starmer is happy to exacerbate this situation.

He’s happy to shut down public discourse, and he’s happy to shut down protest if necessary.

And we could well see our civil liberties under attack again, if not during this Parliament, perhaps under Starmer.

The Tory government has routinely attacked the right to protest and the right to organise, whether it be demonstrations or trade unions.

I can’t see Starmer reversing any of that. If anything, he’ll be building on those laws and making things even harder for us.

Making things even harder for those of us who believe in anything and go out and march for change.

But later this week, the people of Rochdale will vote, and they may choose the disgraced Labour candidate or one of the other two expelled Labour candidates.

Who’s to say?

But The Battleground will be here watching and analysing.

Thanks for listening. This was Left To Burn.

Photograph courtesy of Keir Starmer. Published under a Creative Commons license.