Gaza in Downing Street

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 27 Feb 2024

As the British elections draw near, the war in Gaza is dividing politicians and parties.

Gaza in Downing Street

 

A senior Conservative MP suspended from the ruling party over racist, Islamophobic comments, a former PM under fire for far-right statements at an America election rally, and the speaker of the House of Commons fighting for his political future following the mayhem that followed a vote to stop the war in Gaza — the UK political scene is in chaos now that general elections are taking place in a few months’ time.

The climax occurred last week on a day the Scottish National Party (SNP) was due to challenge the Conservative government (which it does three days each parliamentary season, with the remaining days given to the Labour Party). It proposed a decision to end the war on Gaza. The unwritten rule is that only the party in power can amend such a proposal, but the Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle allowed Labour Party amendments to the SNP proposal to be debated and voted on.

The speaker being a Labour MP, this was seen as a partisan move to spare Labour Party leadership the anger of party members who may have voted for the SNP proposal. Labour is divided over the Gaza war, since its leader Sir Keir Starmer continues to oppose ending the war on Gaza while many Labour MPs support that goal. The government’s parliamentary leadership decided to withdraw its amendments of the SNP proposal, leading to mayhem in the Chamber.

Outside parliament that day, demonstrators were gathered to call for an end to the war on Gaza. Figures from the Conservative Party capitalised on this as a chance to repeat accusations to London Mayor Sadiq Khan that he is “giving in” to anti-Israel demonstrators and “being controlled” by Islamists. Former Conservative Party deputy chair Lee Anderson attacked Khan in a TV interview, using racist slurs. Though the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stopped short of condemning Anderson’s Islamophobic comments, the party leadership has suspended his membership.

Meanwhile, former Conservative PM Liz Truss echoed the same far-right rhetoric. Her ousted Home Secretary Suella Braverman too has been stoking extremist views all along, feeding rising far-right sentiment against anybody calling for stopping the war on Gaza. Despite huge weekly marches in London calling for ending the war, the ruling Conservatives are united in their support for Israel and resisting any calls to stop the killing of Palestinians. Labour divisions over the issue have given their position broader support in parliament.

British voters, like almost all their counterparts in Western democracies, are not too concerned about foreign policy. They go to the polls, in local or general elections, with their eye on the cost of living. They vote on issues that affect their daily life. Yet this time a war thousands of miles away seems to be at the centre of electioneering campaigns.

Some commentators brush aside the idea that the Gaza war could play a major role in the election results. Historically the populace is expected to focus on local issues such as health, education, and transport. But the ruling Conservative Party is seen to have mishandled the economy and the opposition Labour Party has no clear vision of how to improve people’s lives. Due to the stance held by both parties on such a heated foreign policy issue, the war on Gaza may play a significant role indeed.

According to opinion polls, Labour would be in the lead if elections happened now. Most of the opinion poll lead could just be a protest vote against the Conservatives who have been in power since 2010, but the Labour lead is eroding due to Starmer’s position on the Gaza war. Starmer is trying to lure voters on the right who have fallen out of love with the Conservatives. That is why he is in line with the government on various issues, including support for Israel. But many members of his party are trying to distance themselves from his position.

There is no doubt that Labour is losing the support of part of its base because of its leadership’s position on Gaza. Many Muslim voters and voters on the left will not want Starmer to be the next British PM. Those blocks will not be voting Conservatives of course, but will definitely dent the Labour lead, making it difficult for Starmer to form a government if his party wins the election.

The mayhem in the House of Commons on the Gaza ceasefire debate last week could be an early indication of how parliament will look following the elections expected to be held in May or September this year.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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