Starmer at Davos, January 2023. Photo: Flickr/World Economic Forum Starmer at Davos, January 2023. Photo: Flickr/World Economic Forum

Lindsey German on reformism and the mass movement

In normal times calling for a ceasefire in a bloody slaughter of a war would not be an outrageous or extreme thing to do. But, as the reaction to this week’s SNP motion in parliament calling for a ceasefire in Gaza shows, we are not in normal times. The complicity of our politicians and media in the genocidal attacks on the Palestinians is so deep that merely calling for it to end is seen as being, in the words of Labour’s Wes Streeting, ‘pushed around by protesters’.

Labour is facing another crisis over the vote on Wednesday, and you can feel the shadow cabinet squirming as they try to call for a ceasefire while not calling for one. Keir Starmer came very close to doing so at the Scottish Labour Party conference, where he was under real pressure from his own supporters because they are fearful of electoral losses to the SNP. Wes Streeting has now said publicly that Israel has gone ‘beyond reasonable self-defence’. Why it has taken him four months and 30,000 deaths to work this out is beyond understanding. Perhaps the fact that he is being challenged by a young independent Gaza campaigner in his constituency may have something to do with it.

Meanwhile David Lammy pronounces that debates in parliament can’t influence what goes on in the Middle East. Really? But at the very least maybe it could influence the government and the opposition. Labour’s call for a ‘sustainable ceasefire’ not only echoes that of Sunak (and the Israeli government) but also effectively covers up for war crimes and ethnic cleansing because it means no ceasefire until Israel says so.

The attempt to square the circle is duplicitous and self-serving. These politicians also seem to think we have the memories of goldfish. The atrocities in Gaza and the wider complicity of governments will not be forgotten. The huge problems for Labour over its political stance are still being played out and a shift in weasel words is not going to placate the protesters for whom Streeting has such contempt. The Rochdale by-election is likely to result in a victory for George Galloway and will be a referendum on Gaza. Many members have left Labour over Gaza, as well as well over 100 elected councillors. All over the country, independent candidates are planning to stand in the local and general elections against Labour.

It is the movement in solidarity with Palestine which has led to this crisis and it is costing Starmer a great deal of political capital. The dismissal or belittling of that movement is a major mistake for Labour and it is tearing the party apart – not just among the Muslim community but among Labour supporters across the board.

One way of dealing with a political problem is not to talk about it. And that’s certainly what the media and establishment want to do about the protest movement over Gaza. But it doesn’t mean the political problem goes away. Instead, it becomes a deeper and more intractable issue for the ruling classes internationally.

The problem for both Tories and Labour, and for the Zionists and their supporters, is that they simply cannot fathom how deep this movement is and what amazing reserves of energy it has. It is changing politics in Britain but the political and media establishment are determined to sometimes simultaneously belittle, ignore or demonise the huge wave of protest which continues. 

It is really quite stark over the huge demos. On Saturday, the 9th national march for ceasefire in Gaza took place – again attended by hundreds of thousands of people. But there is little pre-publicity for the marches, no favourable puffs in the mainstream media, and most importantly no serious analysis of what the movement represents and what its impact is.

Instead, the narrative is set by government and police interpretations. The unlamented Suella Braverman described the marches as ‘hate marches’ (a phrase repeated about this week’s march by Israeli spokesman Eylon Levy, who obviously thinks there are no conditions under which we should be allowed to protest at his government’s genocidal behaviour).

The police arrested 12 people, a smaller number than at the average football match, music festival, or indeed Saturday in Oxford Street, but these arrests (five for leaving the route of the march) are trumpeted as though they present a major problem. They do not. The marches are very peaceful, diverse, and well organised. A number of arrests, perhaps the majority, are in response to increasingly restrictive conditions placed on the marches by police, such as leaving the exact route of the march.

They also represent a movement which in my experience is unique in its mobilising ability. It has not reached the heights of numbers of February 15 2003 in one single demonstration, when 2 million marched against the Iraq war, but the cumulative effects of these demos, combined with thousands of local actions, meetings and events, is huge. The response of police and politicians to these events has been far more repressive than over Iraq.

They have had a major political impact. Braverman’s demise as home secretary was caused by her attempts to ban the marches and to encourage the far right onto the streets against the movement. Labour has been divided in a major way over calls for ceasefire.

That will continue but it is a little remarked-upon or discussed phenomenon, let alone subject to a serious analysis. It is subject to caricature and slander, but its impact will be much more considerable and long lasting than the pompous pronouncements of most politicians. It will in particular change working-class politics as those campaigning around Gaza grow increasingly disillusioned with Labour and some trade union leaders.

Wednesday is the next big measure of the movement. It should result in a vote for ceasefire now by all Labour MPs. If it doesn’t then Starmer, Streeting and Lammy will have continued to dig Labour’s grave. And they can’t say they haven’t been warned.

This week: there will be demonstrations for Julian Assange, facing his final extradition hearing, a mass lobby and demo outside parliament over the Gaza vote on Wednesday, and an online meeting on the second anniversary of the Ukraine war on Saturday. I will also be on BBC Radio 4 Any Questions on Friday night 8pm discussing no doubt these and other issues.

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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’.