Sir Lindsay Hoyle at Westminster in 2022. Photo: Wikimedia/Katie Chan Sir Lindsay Hoyle at Westminster in 2022. Photo: Wikimedia/Katie Chan

Lindsey German on crisis, war and racism 

The failure of most politicians to do anything about the genocide in Gaza was only too obvious during the Westminster fiasco on Wednesday. But even more reprehensible has been the attempt to blame that failure on protestors and demonstrators, to try to demonise anyone who stands up for the Palestinians, and to unleash a wave of vile Islamophobia from Tory MPs and their allies in the media against the Muslim community, branding campaigners as extremists and terrorists. 

Wednesday was a day of shame in parliament. A debate on Gaza initiated by the Scottish National Party (and which would not have happened if left to the government and main opposition) was completely derailed. The main culprit in this was Labour leader Keir Starmer, aided and abetted by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle.

Yet incredibly by the end of the week, this fiasco had resulted in, not a level of humility and apology from those concerned, but a major moral panic about the safety of MPs.

How did this all happen? The SNP motion called for an immediate ceasefire and referred to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. Starmer understood that this could lead to a rebellion of up to 100 Labour MPs, and tried to scupper this by putting forward his own amendment which was much weaker than the SNP’s, putting conditions on a ceasefire and refusing to talk about collective punishment. It was written after discussion with the Israeli president – an incredible decision given the continuing court hearing at the ICJ about potential genocide by Israel in Gaza.

When the Tories also put forward an amendment which would mean Labour’s might not be called, Starmer and his allies put immense pressure on the Speaker to completely alter parliamentary procedure to allow MPs to vote on it. When explaining his agreement to do so, Hoyle talked about the need to hear a variety of points of view – he didn’t at that stage mention his worry about MPs’ safety.

That concern surfaced in his lachrymose speech the following day when his whole position was under threat. Then he claimed he did it to protect MPs who were under threat from demonstrators. This was taken up by the main parties and the media, with lurid tales of the fear induced by protest.

Let’s be clear here: two MPs have been killed in recent years – one by a far-right activist, another by an Islamic state supporter. Both these killings and any other violence against MPs should be – and are – condemned. I also don’t agree with demonstrations outside MPs’ houses – although to my knowledge there has been only one. But protest outside MPs’ offices or events, let alone outside Parliament, is not only totally legitimate but part of a long tradition in Britain.

The suffragettes are now the subject of a question in the British citizenship test as representative of democratic values, but were subject to imprisonment, force feeding and sexual assault at the time, accompanied by denunciations from a range of MPs for daring to demand the vote. Protests are regularly dismissed or criticised by those in power, but history shows that they are very often vindicated.

Perhaps a wider question is what politicians expect from political debate? If you stand for election you must expect to be argued with, opposed and subject to scrutiny. It seems that in the Commons, like their unelected counterparts in the House of Lords, MPs feel that once elected they should not be challenged in any way, expect through the very narrow rules of debate within parliament itself. Even the large and highly effective lobby organised on Wednesday by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign was denounced as an attempt to ‘storm parliament’ when it was following a time honoured and official system of making views known to MPs.

Home Secretary James Cleverley said that the public should put pressure through the ballot box. But we have a government with less and less legitimacy, trailing in the polls and limping on towards the next election, mired in scandal and losing by elections at every turn. We are on the third prime minister since the election. Boris Johnson blew himself up over party gate, Liz Truss was as catastrophic a prime minister as she was short-lived, and Rishi Sunak is weak and opportunist. Why on earth should we be expected to wait for an election before protesting when there are so many things to be protested at?

Protests took place at the weekend in places as diverse as Margate on the Kent coast to Rawtenstall in the Pennines. There is a mass movement over Gaza which is not going away. It has been subject to the vilest attacks, as consisting of ‘hate marches’, run by ‘Islamists’ with demonstrations being described as dangerous mobs, and it is being criminalised by police and media despite very low levels of arrests and charges.

The assault on the protest movement and the politicians’ continued support for Israel is the real violence here. The movement represents millions around the country, with 66% wanting an immediate ceasefire, and is much more in touch than most MPs, who follow the line about Israel having the right to defend itself and ignore the horrific attacks on the Palestinians.

Now the Tories and Labour leadership are trying to paint this as about them and threats to them. This is narcissism of the worst kind. They have now unleashed a wave of islamophobia, with Suella Braverman saying that Muslims run the country (it might shock her to know that it is her party in government as it has been for 14 years), and Lee Anderson claimed London’s mayor had handed over the city to Muslims. The fact that supposedly serious media outlets promote this rubbish shows how much Islamophobia is being weaponised by the right.

And those promoting it are still being treated with kid gloves, with Braverman still in place as a Tory MP although Anderson’s rant was too much even for Rishi Sunak.

A debate supposedly to be about ceasefire in Gaza has been hijacked by a politician desperate to save his own skin, whose unpopularity over Gaza is totally of his own making.  To cover up for their own failings, the Speaker and MPs then pretended it was about their own safety, when not a single one of them has been harmed in any way during the Gaza crisis.

Then to rub it in, the right decided to make this about Islam, terrorism, and extremism. Just as Suella Braverman tried over the Armistice Day protests, they summon up the far right to attack the demos and the Muslim community. Hoyle and Starmer opened the door for this to happen.

We have to resist over this. There are more talks over a ceasefire but these may come to nothing. Meanwhile starving Gaza lives in fear, and Netanyahu has made clear his plans for post war rule are nothing more than a prison camp. UNWRA is struggling after seeing its funding cut following Israel’s dodgy dossier claiming its employees’ involvement in October 7.

Britain is isolated on the international scene over its defence of the US and Israel. A UN Security Council vote on ceasefire last week saw the US vote against and UK abstain with the 13 others all voting for, including US allies in the Pacific, Japan, and South Korea. Parliament’s refusal to back the Palestinians is shameful, and the scapegoating and distortion to cover it up even more so.

This week: I will be speaking at an International Women’s Day event in Hastings on Thursday, attending the timely No Ceasefire, No Vote conference on Saturday, and spending a few hours in a dark theatre listening to beautiful music while watching Mozart’s The Magic Flute on Wednesday.

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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’.