LABOUR stands today as a party riven from top to bottom. It is divided on precisely those issues of war and imperialism which have proved intractable throughout the history of social democracy over the last century or more.
Yesterday it was support for the first world war, backing for colonial wars from Malaya to Yemen, and of course, the bloody and lawless aggression against Iraq.
Today, it is Keir Starmer’s determination to align with Washington in full support for Israel’s murderous onslaught against Gaza.
If there were ever room for doubt, whipping Labour’s MPs to reject a ceasefire in a conflict which claims the lives of hundreds of children every single day proves beyond peradventure that fealty to imperialism trumps humanitarian considerations every time out for the Labour leader.
Starmer had cover for a U-turn had he wished for it — his nearest analogue on the world stage, France’s centrist President Emmanuel Macron, had broken ranks with the Nato line and backed the ceasefire demand.
However, he was happy to take his stand alongside Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden and all those green-lighting the horrendous assault against the Palestinian people.
But the backlash shows both the limits to the efficacy of purely authoritarian leadership, which has sought to direct Labour from the outset by dictation rather than inspiration, and the resistance to the war policy among the party at large.
Wednesday night’s vote cost him eight members of his front-bench team who could not reconcile their consciences with endorsing the ongoing destruction of Gaza.
In all, 56 Labour MPs rebelled to back the ceasefire amendment in the Commons, to whom can be added four elected as Labour now sitting as independents and perhaps as many genuinely committed to the peace cause but missing for compelling personal reasons.
These join the 350 councillors who have signed a letter calling for a change of policy on the war and over 50 who have resigned from Labour altogether — six more in Walsall yesterday — costing the party control of two local authorities.
Starmer’s line has also been repudiated by leading mayors Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
However, Labour’s benches also include cowardly opportunists who spoke publicly for a ceasefire yet went missing in the vote. And some leaders of affiliated unions have maintained a surprising silence on the war.
Yet the ground is moving. The whole labour movement was burned by Tony Blair’s backing for the Iraq war. Labour’s crisis is as deep today.
The message from the huge rally held outside Parliament as MPs debated the Gaza crisis was very clear — “no ceasefire, no vote.” Some of those Labour MPs who backed Starmer’s line in the lobbies, representing seats like Bethnal Green or Slough, are now sitting on political powder kegs.
Groups of councillors sitting as independent socialists are starting to liaise. The movement that has built up nationally must find some form of expression.
Starmer may calculate that such is the disgust at Tory rule he is a shoo-in to enter Downing Street after the next election. The polls give that attitude support.
But at a deeper level, the present struggle is shaking the attachment to Labour across the country. Support for Israel is one part of a policy of war and oppression around the world which has shaped the outlook of a generation.
Jeremy Corbyn was able for a time to channel that political energy through Labour. That channel is blocked for the foreseeable future. But Wednesday’s events, both within the Commons chamber and outside it, prove that it can and must find a way through.
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