Ceasefire Now - Stop the War on Gaza protest central London 28th October 2023. Ceasefire Now - Stop the War on Gaza protest central London 28th October 2023. Photo: Steve Eason, Flickr

John Rees looks at the impact of the Palestine movement on UK politics, and the challenges ahead

The events of the last two months have contracted major political developments that usually take months or years into weeks. It is important that we take the time to unravel them and to properly understand them.

When the first national Palestine protest took place on 14 October it mobilised 150,000 people. But only one MP, Jeremy Corbyn, addressed the crowd. There were some, but not many, trade union leaders speaking. The RMT, the FBU, and the NEU were notable for their support, but in general it was an almost entirely a grassroots mobilisation with virtually no participation from the leadership of the labour movement, let alone from the liberal wing of the establishment.

Why? Two things had weakened the links between the Labour movement leaders and the anti-war and Palestinian solidarity movement in the preceding period. The first was the anti-semitism witch hunt against Jeremy Corbyn and the attendant acceptance of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. Not only had most of the left MPs accepted this when it was agreed by the Labour NEC, but so had important unions. 

Secondly, the war in Ukraine had been accepted as purely a war of self-defence, denying the great power proxy war context of the conflict, by many in the Labour movement. Left Labour MPs had been explicitly banned from supporting the Stop the War Coalition by Keir Starmer. 

The scale of the subsequent mobilisations has in part mended that breach. The protests grew to 300,000, then to 500,000, then to 800,000 and as they did so the left MPs and the union leaders appeared more frequently and in greater numbers on the platforms. But there still remains a wariness to commit more substantially to support the movement and some unions, and not just the GMB who have led the pro-arms industry lobby at the TUC, have remained at arm’s length.

It is all the more remarkable then that a movement so constituted should have had such a marked political impact in so short a time. For in barely two months the movement has removed the Home Secretary and triggered a government reshuffle, split the Labour Partyand caused the largest backbench rebellion since the revolt faced by Tony Blair over Iraq, brought the Liberal Democrats to adopt a ‘Ceasefire Now’ position, and won the Welsh and Scottish parliaments to demand an immediate ceasefire.

The Braverman moment

We should not hurry over the process that achieved these changes because the headlines do not reveal the full spectrum of important political developments that have taken place.

The crucial period was the week running up to the biggest protest so far on 11 November. This was the period when Suella Braverman was conducting her high-profile campaign to have the demonstration banned by the Metropolitan Police. She was joined by a howling chorus of right-wing commentators and MPs, the right-wing press, and Zionist advocates. 

Braverman even took this campaign so far as to dog whistle the far right to confront the police and their supposed bias in favour of left-wing protestors. This was enormously significant moment because it revealed a split in the British establishment between the Home Office and the police, and ultimately between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.

The majority of the establishment, and crucially the Metropolitan Police, decided that the protests were simply too big to ban. They feared uncontrolled disorder if they attempted to do so. The credit for forcing this outcome lies with the movement and its leaders who refused to back down and cancel the march themselves. The ‘We Will March’ hashtag went viral and the General Secretaries of the NEU, FBU, and RMT joined the campaign.  

On the day of the march, completely co-incidentally Armistice Day, the enraged mob of right-wingers led by Tommy Robinson, having been told by Braverman that the police were protecting left-wing demonstrators, launched an attack on the police in Whitehall and went on to try and attack the Palestine march. 

The result was a disaster for Braverman and the far right. The far right was humiliated by the size of the Palestine march and by the police, who were, for this one rare occasion, clearly out of patience with Braverman and the fascists. By the following Monday Braverman was sacked by Sunak. She had gambled on a far-right push against the protestors, a far-right push called forth from Westminster and echoed by thugs on the street and failed.

Consequences

We should not, however, allow this development, welcome as it was, to obscure some less agreeable aspects of the post-Braverman political landscape.

Firstly, the police have taken a much more overt political stance since their encounter with the Home Secretary. The senior Metropolitan command, most notably Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley, clearly feel they can no longer rely on the establishment as a whole forpolitical protection. Sir Mark’s predecessor, Cressida Dick, was sacked by Mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of the Sara Everard scandal and the controversy over the policing of the protests over that case.

Baroness Casey’s review of the Met published last spring concluded that the force was institutionally racist and misogynistic and that it had lost the trust of Londoners. Police have faced funding cuts while 1,000 Met officers are either suspended or on restricted duties while they face investigation.

Braverman’s attempt to bully the Met into an open, possibly violent, confrontation with the Palestine solidarity movement was therefore only the latest and most egregious affront that the Met feel it has faced from the political class.

Its response has been to launch its own propaganda campaign aimed both at demonstrators and at those of its critics who call for it to take a tougher stance against protestors.

The Met’s social media operation, for instance, is now almost entirely political. Reading it one would assume that political ‘crimes’ are the only crimes in London. No murders, burglaries, or thefts seem to take place in the capital anymore. Only the actions of Palestine protestors, counterdemonstrators, or Just Stop Oil activists have any significant prominence.  

This is where the repeated restrictions on protests and the public campaigns by the police to limit what can be done or said on protests comes from. The police are desperate to forestall establishment criticism by acting in a repressive way towards protest, but to stay this side of provoking public outcry about suppressing freedom of speech on an issue that has widespread public support.

The second effect of the events of 11 November is to cause more division in the Tory party. The appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary is the first step back toward the centre right that the Tory party has made since it was captured by the Brexiteers during Boris Johnson’s leadership. Naturally the Braverman led right are furious and exerting extraordinary pressure on Sunak to refloat Braverman’s sinking flagship, the unworkable Rwanda policy. 

Sunak already looks dazed, confused, and a lightweight. Only imminent doom at the ballot box, for which no other Tory is keen to take the fall, is keeping him in place. But after that the Tory right will be working hard to capture the party and return to power after what they hope will be a disastrous and short Labour interlude.

And with Keir Starmer leading the Labour Party they have their best chance of getting the future of which they dream.

The relentless drive to the right by the Starmer leadership, shadowing the Tories in practically every policy announcement, has met precious little opposition from the left until the Palestine demonstrations became so large that some Labour MPs became rightly fearful of losing their seats. An unprecedented wave of resignations by councillors and some upsets in council elections have focussed even Starmer supporting figures into questioning whether the leaderships stance is not, literally, self-defeating.

This then is the third effect of the Palestine movement: a wide, popular, opposition to the right-wing leadership of the Labour Party. The slogan ‘No Ceasefire, No Vote’ is now chanted on the protests with the same enthusiasm as ‘Free Palestine’. Protests outside MPs offices are often some of the best attended local demonstrations.

It remains to be seen whether this still inchoate desire for an electoral alternative to the bi-partisan support for Israel can give birth to viable electoral projects in local elections and in the coming general election. Before the Palestine movement began there was little chance of that, now there is at least a realistic possibility that such a project could be forged by the Palestine movement.

These then are some of the immediate consequences of the Palestine movement to date: more politicised policing by the state; a further divided and weakened Tory government; a challenge to right-wing Labour larger than any the Starmer has so far faced.

The task ahead

How these social tensions play out will in part depend on the scale of future mobilisations. And these, as with all anti-war movements, will depend on the course of the armed conflict itself. This is not easy to predict, but it seems safe to say that it will last some months yet.

The Israelis clearly intend to militarily occupy the whole of Gaza, possibly attempting to push considerable numbers of Palestinians out of the strip altogether in a second Nakba. This will be a highly contested process, both militarily in Gaza and also in the West Bank where a second front with settler militias is already aflame. And the war is spreading beyond Israel. The Houthis are carrying out very effective and serious attacks on US warships and Israeli freighters in the Red Sea.

It will also be hugely contested politically on a global scale. The western powers are shredding their authority by the hour in their support for Israel. Ukraine is already a major strategic setback since the NATO powers have lost all the moral high ground in that conflict by supporting the Israelis in committing every single war crime that they had previously accused Putin of committing. 

It is not at all clear that Israel can withstand this pressure, no matter how complete its military superiority proves to be. As the Washington Post reported recently, the Israelis have been forced by global political protest to halt every major military conflict they have been engaged in since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 before they attained what they regarded as victory.

That is now the aim of the Palestinian solidarity movement.

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John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.