Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in November 2019 Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in November 2019. Source: UK Parliament - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0

The chicanery in Parliament over the ceasefire vote is sickening. But serious issues for the movement are at stake beneath this farce, argues Kevin Ovenden

The Israeli state, in the dock for genocide, has given 1.5 million Palestinians until 10 March, the beginning of Ramadan to get out of Rafah or … be killed.

Ever greater catastrophe threatens. That’s why the movement of solidarity to stop this genocide is intensifying – including its expressions at the International Court of Justice this week. We must maintain a focus on Rafah, Gaza, Palestine and the Palestinians.

In contrast to the gravity of this situation, the farce in the British parliament this week was sickening. This piece by John Westmoreland explains the tawdry trickery that was deployed to stop a clear vote on a ceasefire that the Scottish National Party proposed.

The Palestinians and their freedom remain central. The British parliamentary shenanigans also introduce, however, the vital question of democracy in Britain and how it is being curtailed. Craven support for Israel by the two main establishment parties is not only leading to authoritarianism against public protest and free speech. It is now even crushing the limited democratic avenues available through parliament.

It is an issue that needs urgently to be taken up throughout the labour movement. It is already being taken up by the anti-war and pro-Palestine popular eruption. In the last 24 hours, a lie that MPs faced physical threats was deployed to deny the third biggest party in Britain its procedural democratic right to have its motion voted on for a ceasefire, no ifs, no buts.

Two elected politicians have been exposed today for simply lying that they faced violent intimidation when they merely had to deal with democratic lobbying and political pressure. One is the Labour member of the Scottish Parliament Paul Sweeney. Police in Glasgow refuted his highly charged claim that anti-war protesters stormed his office and intimidated his staff. They did no such thing, as the police concluded, having been present throughout for an orderly protest, without even any civil disobedience, by a small group of middle-aged or older women and men.

Trashing parliamentary democracy

That has not stopped the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle (for years a nodding-donkey Labour MP) today smearing the entire anti-war movement as in some way incubating terrorism as justification for his anti-democratic manoeuvres on behalf of Keir Starmer.

Yesterday he didn’t mention terrorism but declared that the rules he was ripping up to stop a vote were ‘outdated’. He is making it up as he goes along. The clamour for him to go is rightly growing. Labour wants to mire this in party-infighting and ridiculously tries to claim the moral high ground. But it is very serious. Beneath all the ritual of parliament that is designed to mystify – the Black Rod, the Mace, the fact you cannot call a liar, a liar – a dangerous shift towards autocracy took place yesterday and today.

First, the lies to save Starmer’s party splitting in parliament mean defaming hundreds of thousands of people who have done what we used to be told to do in civics classes. That is to engage in the democratic process. To demonstrate. To lobby. To contact MPs. To argue. To engage in matters of national interest. Five thousand people queued in the rain as good citizens to talk to their MPs. They were not let in, even though space is normally set aside in parliament to receive big lobbies.

Everyone who does that is now being tarred with the taint of terrorism. The Tories, with Labour support, have been doing that for months and longer. Now it has come from the man who in what passes for the British constitution is supposed to be the protector of democracy against arbitrary power through the parliamentary system, not a creature of governments or governments in waiting.

A flat contradiction shows the dishonesty and stupidity of Mr Hoyle. He really must go. He says that to exercise a ‘duty of care’ towards Labour MPs, who said they feared a public backlash, it was necessary to stop a vote on a ceasefire but allow them to vote on the Labour Party’s non-ceasefire motion.

But the duty of the Speaker is to ensure democratic procedure takes place, not scrap it because Keir Starmer and pals say they face political difficulty. The only threat to scores of Labour MPs is that people will not vote for them on account of Gaza. That’s democracy. Meanwhile, MPs who have actually faced threats, often for standing up against racism, sectarianism and war, are wholly ignored. Two elected representatives of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland spring to mind right now. Talk of ‘duty of care’, which arises from the law of negligence and things like the responsibility of a school to the wellbeing of its pupils, is an abomination when it comes to MPs and parliament. They make laws that can send the rest of us to prison. They have some real power in the political system. MPs are not infants dropped off as if parliament were a primary school and the man sitting in the big chair has a duty to look after them until home time.

This is an infantilisation of politics aimed to insulate risible MPs – for almost all are – from democratic scrutiny and accountability. We have MPs pleading ‘duty of care’ to get parliament to protect them from the public and the voters. How self-entitled. Democracy is the opposite. It is at least permanent accountability and the capacity to force MPs and governments out.

Second, we have seen MPs, in their majority, behave like this for a decade. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox was treated as if it were some outgrowth of incivility in politics and harsh criticism of MPs, not the planned fascist murder that it was. 

Now we have the hapless Speaker of the Commons adding to this idea that MPs are special people who need protection from the grubby masses. It is not clear how long he will last. The fear of ‘the mob’ goes back to Roman rulers and has been a permanent feature of the ruling layers for two centuries.

Threats to democracy

Already Hoyle has contributed to whipping up an actual mob. He has unleashed a torrent of anti-Muslim racism by implying that opposing war and standing with Palestine has something to do with terrorism. Thus he has emboldened the radical right, inside and outside the Tory party, even if they may look to oust him so that a vote on Gaza returns to the embarrassment of Starmer. What filthy amorality all around, while the world is warned of genocide and tens of thousands of Palestinians killed or injured. 

Third, socialists know that the whole parliamentary system restricts full democracy, not least by removing most of the functioning of the economy and state from parliament. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter when it is diminished. What happened yesterday is that the third party in Britain had its democratic rights in parliament removed, against the ‘sacred’ rules and traditions. 

This is the kind of thing authoritarian regimes operating with a controlled parliament do. They choose the speaker and apparatus, and they in turn change the rules at a whim. This is not something for socialists to ignore. Starmer has given every indication that he expects his government to be unpopular quickly and for that to be reflected in storms in parliament. So he is rolling the pitch for more authoritarian measures in and out of Westminster. If the Tories were to win the general election, they too would become more authoritarian.

This all means that in fighting to get this corrupt government out, we also have to develop a truly democratic and socialist opposition that can stand up to whatever replaces it. Attacks on the democracy of even weak parliaments have been causes for revolt before. In England, it led to a crisis in 1641 that presaged the Civil War. Speaker Lenthall in January 1642 famously defied King Charles and refused to disclose where five wanted MPs were when the monarch stormed into parliament with troops. All subsequent speakers have at least pretended to stand in that tradition. Mr Hoyle would doubtless point out the five MPs one by one to the absolutist monarch. The move against the Greek parliamentary majority by the King and ruling elite in the 1960s triggered a social eruption that was only ended by a full coup. 

The support by the British state, Tory party and Labour for Israel is adding to a political crisis at home. It was already there with people rejecting the official parties. Now the fundamental question of how we are ruled and what is real democracy is being raised as privileged and pampered MPs (there is a minority who are not) trash it.

The last 24 hours have shown that the movement for Palestine is also one for even the most minimal democracy at home. For free speech, freedom of assembly, and even preventing parliament from becoming wholly a puppet of those who are in power. It is the people versus the elite, democracy versus the lying warmongers and excusers of genocide. We should take the case for radical democracy into all areas and fronts of struggle. At this time of manifold crises, there is a direct attack on democracy. It includes arcane proceedings in parliament as well as police and state repressive powers. Any electoral challenge to the bipartisanship in parliament in England should pose also the argument for democracy from below, based on mass mobilisation and constantly exerting mass feeling and pressure upon those who think they are superior on account of being elected to something.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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