Placard on Ceasefire Now demonstration, London, October 2023 Placard on Ceasefire Now demonstration, London, October 2023. Photo: Alisdare Hickson / CC BY-SA 2.0

The by-election in Rochdale is a referendum on Gaza, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

The Rochdale by-election is turning into a microcosm of British politics at a critical time. By all accounts, this should be a safe Labour seat. Labour won it in 2017 and 2019. With the Tories experiencing national meltdown, and at times running at half of Labour’s projected vote for the 2024 election, Labour should not be in crisis two weeks away from the 29 February vote.

But Labour is in fact in meltdown. The right-wing press (Mail on Sunday) attacked Labour candidate Azhar Ali for alleged anti-Semitic remarks. He’d apparently said, in a meeting with former MP and Hyndburn candidate, Graham Jones, as well as Labour councillors thinking of leaving the party, that Israel had known in advance of the Hamas attack on 7 October, but had allowed it to happen to facilitate its genocidal onslaught.

A media storm followed, in a typical instance of the mainstream press conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Quickly, Ali apologised to the Jewish community and the frontbench rallied to defend him.

Double standards

Had the remarks been made by a Labour left winger, of course, the candidate in question would undoubtedly have been suspended right away. But in Starmer’s Labour, that does not happen. Starmer stood by his ally Ali throughout Monday, as did the front bench.

It was only after a recording of Ali surfaced, in which he is alleged to have said that ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ were to blame for the suspension of Labour MP Andy McDonald from the party, that Starmer finally disowned him. Jones has also been suspended, for referring to ‘fucking Israel’ and questioning why UK citizens were joining up with the Israeli army to fight in Gaza. Jones’s case seems again to be a conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

As a reminder, McDonald was suspended last year for saying something far less outlandish than Ali or Jones: ‘We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.’ His suspension was part of the broader government-led attempt to criminalise pro-Palestinian protest, especially the slogan ‘from the river to the sea’, in which the Labour front bencher had enthusiastically participated.

But, after spending days defending Ali, Labour capitulated to the pressure, and promised he would not sit as a Labour MP even if he won the Rochdale by-election. If this was not embarrassing enough, it’s now actually too late to change his party affiliation on the official ballot, so Ali stands as an embarrassment for Labour over the following two weeks in Rochdale, a permanent reminder of Starmer’s factional and cynical misuse of allegations of anti-Semitism.

Genocide

Yet, if you thought it cannot get worse for Starmer’s Labour, it can. This is not just a one-off mishandling of a situation, a cock-up, that tarnishes Starmer’s (hilarious) projection of himself as ‘forensic’ and Labour’s projection of itself as ‘changed’ from its bad, old anti-Semitic days of Corbyn (an outrageous lie about Labour under Corbyn if ever there was one).

It comes at a time when Labour has been undergoing significant internal strain. Hundreds of councillors left the party and eight frontbenchers resigned to back a ceasefire back in November, but there has also been great anger within the party over Starmer, in recent days, ditching the ‘green new deal’, the party’s promise to invest £28bn a year to facilitate the transition to a carbon-free economy.

Moreover, we are on the verge of Israel’s planned offensive on Rafah. Over the next two weeks, we will either see mass political pressure force the political class in the West to stop Israel from escalating its genocide, or Israel will in fact succeed in pushing the people of Gaza into the Sinai in Egypt, ridding another historic Palestinian land of Palestinians in a drive to eliminate any sense of Palestinian identity and statehood.

As Israel prepares for this final assault on the Palestinians of Gaza, many will now remember Starmer’s inability to condemn Israeli attacks on civilians as war crimes and his consistent inability to call for a permanent ceasefire. The Rochdale episode will not be seen as a one-off, but as confirmation of a particular political trajectory.

Referendum on Gaza

The by-election in Rochdale will therefore become a referendum on Gaza. The person who will stand against Labour’s disgraced candidate is none other than George Galloway of the Workers Party of Britain.

Galloway has a long record of standing in constituencies in which poverty and a large Muslim population are concentrated. Standing and winning, or nearly winning. He will be seen as the anti-establishment candidate, an anti-war candidate, a champion of the Palestinian cause. His victory would smash the narrative of Starmer heading for inevitable victory and open up major questions over Labour’s stance on Palestine.

A win for Galloway in Rochdale would be therefore a welcome blow to Starmer, right-wing Labour, and Westminster more generally, over Palestine. That said, it would also come with problems for the left. Galloway has, over the years, adopted a populist strategy, attempting to appeal to both left and right. This has at times seen him share platforms or electoral tickets with far-right figures and organisations like Ukip. Any win for Galloway could therefore risk legitimising a populist strategy in some quarters and cause division at a critical time.

Nevertheless, a win for Galloway would also expose the limits of Starmer-led Labour’s appeal, opening up electoral possibilities for other forces to the left of Labour. Labour would soon learn that the popular movement slogan ‘no ceasefire, no vote’ is very much real. A variety of left electoral projects could thereby be strengthened, including the chances of re-election of former Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour mayors and councillors who have quit Labour, the Green party, other independents, and local left groups like Aspire in Tower Hamlets.

A real battle of ideas and for hegemony in the labour movement could then begin even before the general election, even though it is likely to play itself out for years in its aftermath, whenever it is held. Starmer’s low ratings have prevented significant challenge so far only because the Tories have engaged in a protracted meltdown since they ousted Boris Johnson, and because Rishi Sunak’s ratings have been even worse than Starmer’s. But that will begin to change after Rochdale and accelerate after the general election. It will present significant challenges for the mainstream, parliamentary parties, as well as for parliamentary democracy itself.

Beyond electoralism

That is important in order to understand the immediate tasks for revolutionary socialists in the labour movement. The horizons of electoral politics in coming months will be greatly determined by the shape, size and depth of the extra-parliamentary movements, of which the solidarity movement with Palestine is currently the high point. And, for revolutionary socialists, elections only serve a purpose if they help build the labour movement’s capacity for self-activity and self-organisation in the broadest sense.

The last few months should be testament to the fact that it is extra-parliamentary movements that primarily move parliamentary politics, not vice versa. Following the strike wave that petered out last summer, the sense of depression in the labour movement was palpable. Starmer was riding high in the polls, to no enthusiasm.

But the eruption of the mass solidarity movement since October last year, led by organisations like the Stop the War Coalition, PSC and CND, has changed the face of British politics, deepening the crisis of the Tories and of Labour alike. It was the movement that brought down a cabinet minister, Suella Braverman, who was at the forefront of attempts to close down protest, and it was the movement that exposed major divisions among the Tories from which they are still reeling. It is the movement that is now beginning to wrench open divisions in Starmer’s Labour, which could until recently envisage no challenge to its apparent leadership of the labour movement.

The streets and the workplaces, through their own activity, are beginning to wake up to the possibilities of the power workers hold in society. It is there that a mass alternative to the left of Labour can and should be forged, in defence of the people of Rafah, Gaza and Palestine, and in defence of the interests of the working class in this country. We have to act now if we are to build hope for a better future for humanity.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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