Rishi Sunak at Westminster, March 2024. Photo: Flickr/Simon Walker Rishi Sunak at Westminster, March 2024. Photo: Flickr/Simon Walker

Lindsey German on crisis, Westminster and the implications for our movement

The speech by Rishi Sunak on Friday night marked a new low even by the standards of the present Tory party. He used the Rochdale by-election victory for George Galloway to denounce extremism and terrorism, to attack the protests over Gaza and to once again raise his fears over attacks on ‘democracy’. And as usual he tries to criminalise demonstrators: ‘Yes, you can march and protest with passion, you can demand the protection of civilian life. But no, you cannot call for violent jihad.’

The whole thing reeks of unutterable hypocrisy. It was done to cover the fact that George Galloway won more votes than the three main parties combined and that he and the independent who came second in Rochdale garnered close to 20,000 votes between them. The result there was a victory over Gaza and should be welcomed as such. It was also a stunning indictment of the two main parties and a rejection of their politics.

Sunak’s speech also managed to attack extremism without mentioning those in his own party. So Galloway’s victory was attacked in astonishing terms for a prime minister commenting over a by-election – he was accused among other things of being endorsed by the fascist Nick Griffin – without batting an eyelid over his own MPs’ record in the past week.

The vile Lee Anderson – until very recently deputy chair of the Tory party – accused London mayor Sadiq Khan of having handed over the city to Muslims. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss joked with far-right Steve Bannon, stayed silent as he endorsed Tommy Robinson, and subscribed to a right-wing conspiracy theory on her recent US trip. Former home secretary Suella Braverman claimed that the Islamists, extremists and antisemites are in charge now. And Tory MP Paul Scully claimed there were parts of Tower Hamlets and Birmingham that were ‘no-go’ areas for non-Muslims.

Add to this a recent poll on Tory attitudes to Muslims that shows a majority see Islam as a threat to the British way of life – and clearly the Tories have a gigantic Islamophobia problem. Which is why every Tory minister has described Anderson’s comments as ‘wrong’ rather than Islamophobic. It is clear that for Sunak extremism does not refer to his own extreme right but to the left and that his fake horror at the Griffin endorsement of Galloway is purely performative since those with similar views remain as Tory MPs.

There was however a very chilling edge to Sunak’s speech, as it essentially called for more police repression against the pro-Gaza demonstrations. This followed his meeting with police chiefs on Wednesday when he said that there was a threat to democracy through mob rule – by which he meant protests and demonstrations.

These repeated interventions show how the question of Gaza is not just a major political problem for Labour but for the Tories as well. The whole of the British political establishment and its fawning media was exposed by the fiasco over the Gaza ceasefire vote in the Commons and since then it has gone on the offensive against the protests, the movement and the Muslim community. The moral bankruptcy of our rulers in refusing to support a ceasefire in the face of genocide is now matched by its serious attempts to scapegoat protesters and use draconian laws to prevent them voicing what represents majority opinion in this country.

Keir Starmer is supposed to have not been concerned by the Rochdale result – in which case he must be stupid as well as arrogant. It is by no means clear to me that Labour would have won even with a proper candidate, but whether or not that is true it is certainly the case that many people – both Muslim and non-Muslim – will not give Labour its vote in the next election. Starmer’s success so far is based on Tory collapse, not on positive enthusiasm. He has u-turned on green energy, his promises when elected as leader, and much more but seems to be incapable of u-turning over Gaza.

He will pay a political price for this. He supported the thrust of Sunak’s speech, quite disgracefully, and joins in with all the scapegoating. Labour, as the Forde report showed, has its own problems over racism and Islamophobia. And he and politicians across the spectrum have deliberately talked up questions of MPs’ safety in order to demonise what are overwhelmingly peaceful demos against a genocide.

The implications of talk of extremism and the mob are to unleash a new wave of Islamophobia worse than anything seen in recent years. Since October 7th there has been a big increase in antisemitism and in Islamophobia. But there is one difference between the two: Islamophobia is being driven by the state and major institutions. We saw that from the speech, from the use of increasingly repressive policing, from the lazy racist stereotypes that MPs use, from the use of the Prevent programme to target Muslims.

What events of the past week demonstrate is this: the elites in parliament, media and elsewhere are stunned by the size and duration of the demonstrations; they fear the opinions of ordinary people and refuse to listen to them; they would like to make pro-Palestine activity a crime and are increasingly looking at ways to do so. Essentially they don’t like dissent, and expect the mass of the population just to suck up attacks on working people whether at home or abroad.

The idea that democracy means criticism of elected leaders is anathema to them. Home secretary James Cleverly said last week that the protests had made their point, and that people should express their desire for change at the ballot box. But when they do that, as they did in Rochdale, it’s seen as equally unacceptable.

The gap between rulers and ruled reminds me of Old Corruption, the system of government we had in the 18th and early 19th centuries. That rule, with its rotten boroughs and laws which made any type of protest or organisation illegal, was brought to an end initially through the movement for reform which led to very limited changes in 1832 and then incrementally for the next 100 years before we got universal suffrage.

A new movement for reform isn’t going to be enough though – with this lot we’ll need a revolution.

This week: We have another mass demonstration on Saturday. Before that I will be speaking in London, to build for the day of action on International Women’s Day March 8th, and in Cardiff where I have a full day of activity including a public meeting. I am reading a very interesting book The Last Years of Karl Marx by Marcello Musto (Stanford), which has a lot to say about his reading and research in those years, including on colonialism, and of course about his increasing health problems and sadness, as he lost his wife and eldest daughter.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.