National Ceasefire Now protest, London 3rd February 2024 National Ceasefire Now protest, London 3rd February 2024. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

The protest movement that has exploded onto the streets and inside the Labour Party in response to British complicity with Israel’s crimes is not a distraction from class politics — it’s the way forward, writes Kevin Ovenden

The climbdown by the Metropolitan Police from cutting the route of today’s London march to stop the genocide in Gaza is a further indication of a rising political force beyond Westminster.

It is obscured in the Establishment media. But something extraordinary has been taking place for the last four months.

Despite an ironclad consensus between the government and the official opposition, there has been a sustained movement of hundreds of thousands of people. It has faced down media hostility and repressive political policing.

It has done so to oppose Israel’s war, Britain’s participation in it, the slide to wider conflict and to stand with the Palestinian people. On its central demands, it enjoys majority support.

This popular eruption — with a battle-hardened leadership at its core — has achieved concrete gains. It has seen off the most right-wing Home Secretary most of us can remember.

While what are ultimately extreme right efforts to smear the protests continue, they have not limited the mobilisations.

Headlines about so-called “hate marches” of three months ago have been eclipsed by news of the effects on politics in Britain of Israel’s genocidal war and on those trying to stop it. The furious headlines have cooled. Perhaps because those writing them realise they appeal to fewer and fewer people and excite only cranks.

That is despite the Orwellian efforts of much of the media to ignore what is global and world-historic news: the International Court of Justice is proceeding with a charge of genocide against the state of Israel.

It took many years to make part of the public conversation the understanding in Britain that Israel practises apartheid — from the river to the sea.

Patient explanation and campaigning for decades eventually produced acknowledgement of the apartheid character of the state by bodies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Now it has taken just three months for the word “genocide” to become attached to Israel. It is difficult to overstate what a shattering ideological defeat this is for the Israeli state and its racist supremacist government.

That the legal process is being driven by post-apartheid South Africa is not lost on most of the world. There is more than the usual air of unreality in the British Parliament and the orbiting, incestuous media, in pretending that the centre of gravity of world affairs is where it was when Lord Palmerston ran all things foreign from Whitehall.

There has been one misassessment after another by the government and by the Labour Party for 18 weeks.

They thought they could use the October 7 attacks like the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago to whip up a pro-war mania and to liquidate the socialist left and forces for peace.

The exact opposite has happened. Not only the national outpourings that demonstrate the strength of feeling but those, in turn, cascading back into neighbourhoods and workplaces and onto high streets across the country. Into art exhibitions, sewing circles, blockades, fundraisers, lobbying MPs and myriad public meetings and events.

They are having political effect. They lie behind the belated efforts of today’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, to try to strike a balanced note this week over Palestinian statehood.

It is woeful. It is cynical. It is wholly inadequate when Britain continues support for Israel’s war that has left one in 20 Palestinians in Gaza dead, missing or injured. But it is the popular struggle that is forcing this.

The impact of the anti-war and solidarity movement in Britain is attested by friends across historic Palestine and the Middle East who are resisting this drive to a second Nakba. They say that the mass London demonstrations concentrating myriad actions across Britain are an inspiration.

That, alone, is sufficient reason to sustain and develop this struggle.

Then there is what this is doing to British politics and the prospects for the working-class movement, ordinary people and the left.

Labour’s election defeat in December 2019 was shattering. It was perhaps more so given that for too many who had enthusiastically backed Jeremy Corbyn’s historically exceptional leadership of the party, it was a shock without much in the way of ready explanation.

We can rehearse the reasons for that. They would include the Establishment’s weaponising of the Europe question to break up the Labour vote and of charges of anti-semitism against the Labour leadership.

It would run to the caution from autumn 2017 on that suggested a posture of government in waiting, not insurgent, popular disruption and social struggles. And the reasons have to include the political weaknesses and mistakes on the left.

Whatever the particular issues, the defeat in 2019 raised fundamental questions. Not least because a majority of Labour’s membership, and the trade unions, within months backed Keir Starmer as leader through an act of supreme wishful thinking that ignored all the signs of where he would go.

It is impolite to say, “I told you so.” But some of us did say exactly where Starmer would go. He is more a statal figure than a Labour figure. His extravagant loyalty is to the British state. And that state still has nightmares from the shock in 2017 of there nearly being an actually socialist prime minister.

The reports that Labour’s £28 billion pledge on green investment is to be scrapped, despite its popularity, is the latest instalment of Starmer’s Oedipal psychodrama of killing who came before him.

There’ll be another next week as he seeks to define what he is not. Starmer has already allowed himself to be outflanked by Cameron, of Libya disaster fame, when it comes to disputing an Israeli veto on recognition of Palestine.

That this — as one damn thing after another — is alienating once-loyal working-class Muslim Labour voters is so obvious even frontbenchers admit it off the record.

Scores of councillor resignations (not all Muslims); independent general election candidates already declared such as in Ilford North with its rather supercilious sitting MP; tricky by-elections; a concerted effort by civil-society Muslim organisations with the support of others to put Palestine, peace and opposing Islamophobia and racism on the ballot paper along with all the injustices working people are facing.

A couple of months ago Labour central was dismissing all that as noises off by a whinging left while Labour forged ahead in the polls.

Even now, in official politics, this is considered largely as a kind of top-down technical matter of how you manage your voter base. Get some Muslim interlocutors in to assuage people. But that again underestimates the depth and breadth of what is happening, in my view.

This is social. It’s been cumulative for a generation. It is not down to a few “movers and shakers” making a noise in different communities that may be bought off. That is why there are hundreds of thousands on the streets.

Second, it is totemic. Palestine is concentrating a lack of trust in politicians and in Labour especially that is felt over many other issues. The polling that shows high nominal support for Labour also shows historic lows over whether people think a Labour government will mean a positive difference in their lives.

That suggests low turnout and turbulence. That this is happening before a Labour government, as opposed to 2001 and 2005, is remarkable.

There are similar signs in the US. Joe Biden and Democrat politicians face unprecedented protests and rejection by Arab and young voters that no amount of pointing to Donald Trump’s filthy politics will halt.

How this pans out in advance of, and more probably after, the general election in Britain remains to be seen. But we must not let that distract from today’s developments that we can be much more confident about.

There has been a historic debate and objective dilemma in the socialist movement going back over a century about the relationship between direct, class and social struggles, and seeking left representation in parliaments, and even government.

In the last five years the defeat of Corbynism — and of Syriza in Greece, to mention an actual governmental experiment — gave a negative answer to that perennial strategic discussion. But it did not provide in itself a positive and contemporary way forward.

So there has been a lot of demoralisation and confusion. One aspect of it is a retreat by some activists to micro-activism and “building the power base,” as it used to be put half a century ago.

Those in the trade union movement who are in effect advocating that are making a mistake. In reality, they rely upon the politics of a Labour government in any case.

As if in a world of war, climate breakdown, militarism and resurgent fascism we can do that without answering the big questions over the direction of society and without a combative politics to advance each particular struggle.

Between anti-political activism and a politics subordinated to the corrupting embrace of the state and its extensions lies something else, surely?

A truly radical politics where the collective struggles do not just stir people up to then go and vote for others to make the big changes — but where the struggles themselves develop their own political mechanisms and arguments, and contestation for power.

This spring in Britain an extra-parliamentary movement of global significance is on the streets making immediate gains, but also posing that revolutionary question. It is on this basis only that it is possible even to pose the question of its expressions in the electoral arena.

If we are to do better than previously, we have to recognise the fundamental order of priority — and of events as they are unfolding.

Reposted from Morning Star.

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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