UK Labour’s failure to call for a Gaza ceasefire is not surprising

Party’s stance on Palestine has always been and still is morally corrupt.

Keir Starmer, leader of Britain's Labour Party, speaks during the Prime Minister's Questions, at the House of Commons in London, Britain November 15, 2023. UK Parliament/Maria Unger/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. IMAGE MUST NOT BE ALTERED.
Keir Starmer, leader of Britain's Labour Party, speaks during the Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons in London on November 15, 2023 [UK Parliament/Maria Unger/Handout via Reuters]

Much of the British political establishment’s stance on Palestine, including that of the Labour Party, is and has always been morally corrupt.

More than a century ago, in 1917, the United Kingdom paved the way for the ethnic cleansing and oppression of the Palestinian people with the Balfour Declaration, which promised British patronage of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Today, Britain’s political establishment – both Conservative and Labour –  is working to ensure the continuation of this oppression by supporting and providing impunity for Israeli regime’s war crimes in Gaza.

The establishment’s unconditional support for the Israeli regime – and disregard for Palestinian suffering – was fully on display on Wednesday during a House of Commons vote on an amendment to the King’s Speech put forward by the Scottish National Party that called for a ceasefire in Gaza.

In the end, the amendment failed with 293 MPs voting against it. Just 125 MPs, including 56 Labour MPs who defied their party whip, voted for the amendment and thus for a ceasefire that would save countless Palestinian lives. Among the Labour MPs who voted with their conscience and against the establishment position were eight shadow ministers who subsequently had to leave their front bench positions.

The official Labour Party line since the beginning of this latest bombardment of Gaza has been to unequivocally support the Israeli regime. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, went so far as to say during a radio interview that the Israeli regime has the right to cut off access to water, food and electricity for Palestinians in Gaza. Of course, as Starmer undoubtedly knows, such actions are in fact considered collective punishment, and thus a war crime, under international law.

But this wasn’t surprising from Starmer, who has been rooting out Palestinian solidarity from within the ranks of Labour since the beginning of his tenure as party leader. The previous Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had broken ranks with the establishment and positioned the party as a firm critic of Israeli regime policies towards Palestinians. Corbyn’s principled stance on Palestine was an anomaly in the history of the party. Indeed, the Labour Party’s stance on the rights of the Palestinian people has always been dismissive at best.

In 1948, the silence of the British left – from the communists to the Labour Party – on the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland was resounding. Former British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was an advocate of Zionism and considered the Israeli regime a “wonderful experiment in Socialist politics”. For many in the party, there was no contradiction in merging socialism (or Labor Zionism) with settler colonialism.

Even in 1967 when the Israeli regime occupied the rest of historic Palestine, the Labour Party maintained a consensus on support for the Zionist project. It was the Israeli Labour Party that spearheaded the settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and Syria’s Golan Heights in direct contradiction of UN Resolution 242 calling for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from newly occupied territories. This, however, did not sour the good relationship between the two parties. In fact, the 1960s and 1970s has been described as the “golden years” of cooperation between them.

Under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s leadership, the party further cemented its ties with the Israeli regime. In 2006, Blair’s Labour refused to call for a ceasefire in the Israeli regime’s war against Lebanon, in which more than 1,400 Lebanese were killed. When Blair stepped down as prime minister and Labour leader in 2007, he immediately assumed the position of representative to the Quartet, the international body overseeing the so-called “Israeli-Palestinian peace process”, based in East Jerusalem.

Throughout his tenure at the Quartet, the former Labour prime minister was accused of pursuing political deals that would line his pockets and hinder the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation. He, for example, famously secured radio frequencies from the Israeli regime for the West Bank and Gaza, which allowed for the establishment of the second Palestinian mobile phone operator, Wataniya Mobile. What is not widely known is that Watinaya is owned by a telecom company that is a client of JP Morgan, for which Blair was a special adviser. In return for this, the Palestinian Authority was pressured to drop its attempt to pursue in the UN evidence of war crimes committed in Gaza by the Israeli regime during its 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead.

The Labour establishment has always been complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people, but their moral corruption on Palestine is not representative of the contemporary Labour grassroots. In fact, trade unionists, councillors and students groups affiliated with the Labour Party are a significant part of the ever-growing Palestine solidarity movement in the UK. And we have seen Labour councillors resign from their positions over the party’s line on Palestine – so far more than 30.

This latest assault on Gaza has highlighted existing tensions within the Labour Party – tensions between the upper echelons offering near unconditional support to the Israeli regime and a grassroots that views support for the Palestinian struggle as the cornerstone of a genuinely leftist and progressive political agenda. Indeed, many on the British left can see the moral corruption of the Labour establishment on the issue of Palestine and recognise its interdependence with other social and racial justice issues. They understand, for instance, one cannot object to the mass deportation of asylum seekers while turning a blind eye to the Palestinian people’s struggle to return to live freely in their homeland.

This is why Wednesday’s vote was important, especially for the Labour Party. It was not only an attempt to save lives in Gaza but also an opportunity to take a stand as a supposedly left-wing party against war, Western imperialism and colonialism. Labour once again failed to take this stand, and to be honest, I am sceptical that it will ever do so.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.