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Labour’s libel

Historical significance of the battle over the SNP’s motion was Labour’s willingness to dog whistle about British Muslims, to insinuate that pro-Palestinian activist posed a violent threat to its MPs

Mukul Kesavan Published 25.02.24, 05:57 AM
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, speaks at a Labour Business Conference at the Oval on February 1, 2024 in London, United Kingdom.

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, speaks at a Labour Business Conference at the Oval on February 1, 2024 in London, United Kingdom. Sourced by the Telegraph.

Last week, there was a procedural wrangle in the House of Commons over a motion asking for a ceasefire in Gaza sponsored by the Scottish National Party. Trivial in itself, the quarrel was significant as a symptom of the British Labour Party’s move to the majoritarian Right.

The subsequent media commentary on the ceasefire debate deplored the distance between the arcana of parliamentary procedure and the horrors of the war in Gaza. The political calculations of the SNP, the Conservatives and Labour were criticised as the narcissism of small differences. The fracas in the Commons over the Speaker’s unprecedented decision to admit a Labour amendment to the SNP’s motion was characterised as nitpicking designed to score political points rather than produce a serious debate about the best way of ending the violence in Gaza.


There was, in this view, no substantial difference between an im­m­ediate ceasefire (SNP), an imme­diate humanitarian ceasefire (Labour), and a humanitarian pause (Conservatives). The other objection to the sound and fury in the House was the absurdity of parsing these differences when the main antagonists, Israel and Hamas, were indifferent to the opinions of distant Opposition parties.

This was a perverse misreading of the debate on both counts. First, the political manoeuvring over the SNP’s ceasefire motion and its proposed amendments was a fight over real differences. Starmer recognised this: he didn’t want to commit Labour to an immediate ceasefire, so his 237-word amendment introduced the caveats necessary to defer the immediacy of the aforesaid ceasefire. Neither did he want to support a motion that called out the collective punishment inflicted on Gazans by the Israel De­fense Forces because that might off­end Israel and the United States of Am­erica and imperil future diplomacy. Palestinian wickedness, in the shape of Hamas, can be denounced at will but the bludgeoning violence inflicted on Palestinians by Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF can’t be nam­ed but only gestured at as ‘disproportionate’, a word that suggests aesthetic excess rather than bloody murder.

Secondly, just as the political class in Britain responded to the massacre of October 7 without caveat or qualification, it was reasonable for parties concerned about the slaughter in Gaza over the past four and a half months to push for an unconditional ceasefire. The fact that the SNP’s motion threatened to embarrass or split the Labour Party didn’t affect the legitimacy of the SNP’s reiterated demand for an immediate ceasefire. To use legislative procedure to push the government or shame the principal Opposition party into demanding an immediate end to mass killing in Gaza is not undignified opportunism, it is the business of democratic politics.

Starmer lobbied the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, into allowing Labour’s amendment by arguing that the personal safety of Labour MPs was at risk. Their constituents were so incensed by Labour’s position on Gaza that they, along with their families, were feeling threatened. They needed to vote on a ceasefire resolution approved by their whips; a choice between the government’s amendment and the SNP’s would force them to choose between their political careers and their physical well-being.

The historical significance of the battle over the SNP’s motion was Labour’s willingness to dog whistle about British Muslims, to insinuate that pro-Palestinian activist posed a violent threat to its MPs. Inverting an anti-Semitic trope, an attachment to the Palestinian cause was cast as a form of extraterritorial loyalty that hindered Muslim assimilation into the mainstream and imported alien contagions from the Muslim world into Britain. The political analyst, Stephen Bush, observed that the Labour Party treats its Muslim voters “… like an embarrassing relative they don’t want to talk about.” British Muslims, traditional Labour supporters, now embarrass Starmer as he sets about making his party ‘respectable’.

Muslims have their uses as political bogeymen. Hoyle repeatedly claimed that the main reason for breaking with the convention of not allowing one Opposition party to propose an amendment to another Opposition party’s motion was his concern for the safety of MPs. This became something of a refrain. The New Statesman, historically a magazine of the Left, joined in this chorus. An article on the ceasefire debate approvingly quoted a Conservative MP making this alarmist point: “People are frightened… If people are changing their votes in this place… because they’re frightened of what will happen to them or their families out there, then we have a real problem.” Freddie Hayward, the author of the piece, was even more vehement: “…some of Britain’s sovereign legislators want to vote a certain way because they feel threatened. Why is this not more widely condemned?”

In The Guardian, Polly Toynbee echoed this line. “And if that’s true,” she wrote darkly, “that is more serious than anything else that happened in the Commons chaos of yesterday: that MPs… are saying they are under such threat, so physically intimidated. that they felt they must vote in a particular way... Pause and think about that: it really is a sinister new low.”

The obvious political point, that Starmer didn’t want to be embarrassed by rebellious MPs impatient with his foot-dragging on Gaza, was forgotten, replaced by lurid visions of hapless legislators in need of a face-saving vote to appease potentially violent constituents. Who were these threatened MPs? More importantly, who were these feral voters?

No one named them but the implication was so clear that they didn’t have to be named. These were Muslims driven by religious solidarity with Palestine to intimidation and violence. To save himself the mortification of frontbench resignations and mutinous MPs, Starmer was happy to cast Labour’s Muslim voters as a violent threat that needed to be finessed. And Hoyle obliged. Starmer’s alibi, endorsed by Hoyle, libelled pro-Palestinian protesters as violent, menacing mobs from which MPs had to be protected.

Political pundits from the Right to the Left amplified this libel. MPs have been violently threatened by zealots and thugs of every political stripe. A longstanding problem was instrumentally used to sidestep political embarrassment over a motion for a ceasefire in Gaza. Then Starmer’s alibi was taken at face value and solemnly inflated into an existential threat posed by jihadists to Parliament’s integrity. The massive mobilisation against the war that had drawn people from every section of British society was reduced to a species of dangerous incitement that threatened MPs in, whisper it, ‘Muslim-heavy’ constituencies.

Social democratic parties in Europe, starting with Scandinavia, have adapted to the growing hostility towards immigration by moving Right and disciplining their minorities. In an interesting piece of political jiu-jitsu, Starmer has used the outrage over Israel’s barbaric bombing of Gaza to suggest that fanatical foreign fevers threaten British politics. This looks like an inflection point in British politics where Labour drops its Muslim parcels, the better to embrace the white, working-class voters that gave it its name.

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