Ukania and Palestine

The UK government has been among the most hawkishly pro-Israel states in the Western world, and the opposition Labour Party has done its best to purge critics of Israel from its ranks – yet the Palestine solidarity movement in Britain has been the largest in Europe. As one of the chief organizers of that movement, how would you account for its impressive scale?

In many Western countries, the pro-Palestine movement has different components that don’t always work together: leftist, Muslim, Arab nationalist. When we set up the Stop the War Coalition in 2001 we tried to take a different approach, and began collaborating with Muslim groups from early on – for instance after the massacre in Jenin in spring 2002. We decided that the February 2003 mass demonstration against the Iraq war would also be a march for Palestinian liberation: the two slogans for the event were ‘Don’t Attack Iraq’ and ‘Freedom for Palestine’. Then, during the protests against Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, we made an alliance with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Muslim Association of Britain, Friends of Al Aqsa and the Palestine Forum in Britain, which remains in place today. We’ve also worked a lot with British trade unions, whose stance on this issue has generally been quite robust. So I think the strong links between these institutions make the UK a distinctive case.  

There’s also a fairly widespread awareness of Britain’s imperial history, including its role in the Zionist project: Balfour, Sykes–Picot, and of course the League of Nations Mandate. If you mention these things at a rally in London, people of very different backgrounds and social classes know what you’re talking about – which is interesting, since we’re not taught about them in school. Now, with the ongoing slaughter in Gaza and violence spreading across the region, people are horrified by the UK’s support for the Israeli war machine. They recognize that this is a watershed moment. So for seventeen consecutive weeks there have been either major national demonstrations, which have brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets, or significant numbers joining local actions. In response, the government has suggested banning Palestine flags, proscribing certain slogans and even outlawing the protests outright, as was done in France and Germany. But as yet they haven’t succeeded.  

Does that challenge the idea, which we heard throughout the Corbyn years, that anti-imperialism is a marginal, unpopular strain in British politics?

I think there’s a misconception that British workers have always been bought off by imperialism. But if you look at the history, there have been repeated mobilizations around international issues: from the Spanish Civil War to the Suez crisis to South African apartheid. William Morris bitterly opposed the Sudan war in 1884. The Lancashire working class supported the North during the US civil war even though they suffered hardship as a result. These were all popular causes. So there is a strong political current here – and I think it’s one of the main reasons why Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015. But of course, that current is anathema to the Labour establishment, whose foreign policy has been consistently reactionary, especially when it came to the independence and decolonization movements of the twentieth century. The right of the party couldn’t bear the idea that Corbyn would have changed Britain’s policy on the Middle East. And they couldn’t bear that a substantial segment of the population supported him on these questions. They could have tolerated him renationalizing the railways, but that was a bridge too far.

Does that also explain why the UK government has responded so aggressively to the recent protests?

I think the government was surprised by the response to October 7th. As the bombing of Gaza got underway, they decided to light up Downing Street in the colours of the Israeli flag. They thought this would be another Ukraine moment, with everyone rallying around Israel in a supposed clash between civilization and barbarism. They were gearing up for that kind of propaganda operation. But as early as October 9th, thousands of people gathered to protest outside the Israeli Embassy. As with 9/11, they saw that this attack would be used to justify killing on a much greater scale – and that the Israeli government would exploit this opportunity to try to expel the Arab population from historic Palestine. People didn’t trust the government, or the media coverage, or Keir Starmer. And this is a serious problem for the political class, because if the war continues to escalate they won’t have a mandate for intervention. They’ll struggle to gain consent for following the US into this military quagmire. And they won’t be believed when they tell us that Iran poses an existential threat, for example.

This is partly why we’ve seen the attempts to repress the movement. The government have branded the demos ‘hate marches’ and introduced legislation to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. They’ve also launched a crackdown on smaller fringe groups. The Muslim outfit Hizb ut-Tahrir has been labelled a terrorist organization – which obviously it isn’t, although we might disagree with it on most issues. Police have also arrested members of a small Maoist organization called the CPGB-ML, raided their houses and confiscated their literature. People in the Muslim community are being told that their children can’t talk about Palestine in school, otherwise they’ll be reported under the Prevent legislation. There is a real effort, from different sections of the establishment, to present pro-Palestine activists as Hamas supporters or antisemites. But despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail and the Metropolitan Police, they only ever manage to find about half a dozen people at each march who they can claim are carrying questionable placards.

More than 70% of the UK population now support a ceasefire, while the two main Westminster parties oppose it. What are the strategic implications of this situation for the left? Could it open up the space for an electoral challenge to Starmer’s Labour?

When the election is held later this year, Palestine will be on the ballot paper. Right now neither party is managing to satisfy its own supporters, let alone the wider public, so my guess is that there will be major abstention. It still looks like Labour will win a clear majority, but Starmer’s cheerleading for Netanyahu has prompted a mass exodus of members. Every week I hear about more local politicians who are leaving in disgust. In Liverpool, Hastings, Oxford and elsewhere, left-wing councillors have established independent groupings. Some of these people will probably run against Labour in the general election. It’s hard to predict how they’ll do, given the constraints of the first-past-the-post system, but they’ll certainly hurt the Labour vote share in various places – especially where there is strong support for a ceasefire. And this could, in theory, form the basis of a new organization: a new type of left party.

One of the big problems, though, is that the major trade unions remain tied to Labour. There are lots of general secretaries who come and speak at our Palestine demos, and several unions have backed our call for a ‘workplace day of action’ on February 7th, which is encouraging. But despite the strike wave that’s taken place over the last two years, the unions haven’t made significant gains in terms of their membership or influence. They are still relatively weak formations. So they’ll be keen to strike deals with Starmer once he gets into power, and reluctant to support autonomous political initiatives.

Might the unions begin to play a more militant role once a future Labour government starts imposing wage restraint on workers, as Starmer has indicated that it will?

Well I suppose we’ve been here before. Wilson launched a brutal attack on the Seamen’s Union in 1966, but the labour movement still refused to cut ties with his government. Since then, the unions have lost a great deal of their strength, which may put them in an even more precarious position; but then again so has Labour and Labourism, as a result of severing its organic connection with the working class. So I guess the answer is: some will wrest free of the party and some won’t. The Fire Brigades Union disaffiliated under Blair, and it’s conceivable that it and others like it might do so again. But my sense is that the larger unions will do everything they can to try to preserve a Labour government, even if its policies – on everything from austerity to the Middle East – are merely an echo of the Tories’.

Where next for the Palestine movement in the UK, especially given the tendency for regular A-to-B marches to lose momentum? How to preserve its energy?

The forms of action that can be taken are almost endless. Groups like Workers for a Free Palestine and Palestine Action have been shutting down weapons factories. Protesters have been staging sit-ins in railway stations. There was a day of action against Barclays Bank – which provides billions worth of investment to arms companies linked to Israel – and other types of BDS organizing are sure to continue. We’re preparing for limited walkouts across workplaces and campuses next week. But I don’t think we should see direct action and marches as somehow counterposed. To me, what the national demos do is bring very large numbers of people and groups together – which energizes them to go off and do different things. So that helps to keep the momentum going. If you don’t have the national demos, there’s a danger that the movement will fragment.

The other thing that will help to sustain the activism is a strong political core, which takes us back to the question of anti-imperialism. I think it’s important for people to see Gaza as integrally related to the wider setup in the Middle East – how it’s shaped by the United States, and to a lesser extent by Britain. So you need public meetings and discussions to develop that critique. And you also need writers and intellectuals to bring the issue into focus. Apparently Ghada Karmi’s 2023 book One State has sold out, and keeps selling out every time new copies are printed, which tells you that people are increasingly aware that the two-state ‘solution’ is a fantasy and are now thinking beyond it.

The thing is, even if there were a ceasefire tomorrow, this movement isn’t going away. The demos might get much smaller, and people might want to do more local actions, but the feeling among the organizers is that there has been a permanent sea-change in public attitudes towards Palestine. And this has already altered British politics. The establishment are still trying to weaponize accusations of antisemitism against anyone who criticizes Israel, but this has become much harder to pull off. The line that Israel is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ just doesn’t work anymore. Thanks to both the solidarity campaign and the ICJ ruling, Israel will now forever be associated with the words ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’.

Read on: Alexander Zevin, ‘Gaza and New York’, NLR 144.