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How Palestine, and Corbyn's Shadow, Will Decide a 'Poisonous' U.K. Election

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Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh presents George Galloway with a map of Palestine during their meeting in Gaza in 2009
File photo: Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh presents George Galloway with a map of Palestine during their meeting in GazaCredit: REUTERS

THE English electoral district of Batley and Spen is nearly 2,000 miles and a world away from Israel and Palestine. Blackened Victorian municipal buildings, grey skies, not a synagogue in sight. If there are any Palestinians or Israelis in this area of Yorkshire, they can probably be counted on one hand.

Batley and Spen is, however, home to what is being described as the most poisonous by-election in a generation and one reason – incredibly – is to do with tension over Palestine and Israel.

There are pro-Palestine flags in windows and shop fronts. Passers-by sport T-shirts showing a wiped-out State of Israel with a Palestinian flag in its place. Social media groans with high-decibel diatribes about how the "evil Zionists" own the media which means no one is talking about their crimes and perfidy.

It will surprise some to learn that among those being slammed as evil Zionists is a political party at whose last conference, in 2019, there was a general assembly meeting at which the Palestinian flag was held aloft by thousands shouting ‘Free Palestine’ when brandishing the Union Jack was deemed racist. That party is the Labour party.

Since that conference, Labour has lost its ostentatiously pro-Palestinian leader Jeremy Corbyn, who took the party to its worst election defeat since 1935, and won a new one in the shape of Keir Starmer. The Labour’s party’s stance on Palestine hasn’t officially changed since the Corbyn era; the party has always spoken up against settlements in the occupied territories and for a two-state solution.

Then-MP Jeremy Corbyn joins Palestinian demonstrators in London's Trafalgar Square along with estimated 15,000 protesters marching against Israel's bombing of Gaza. Jan 3, 2009Credit: theodore liasi / Alamy

The only difference is that Starmer has also vowed to clear out antisemites from a party which, on the eve of the last election, prompted nearly half of the nation’s Jews to say they were scared of a Labour victory. Nearly 40 percent of British Jews said they would "seriously consider" emigrating if Corbyn became prime minister. 

That he has done only a little more than talk about sorting out the antisemitism issue is the subject for a different article. He has no choice, after all, when it comes to taking action; an inquiry by the UK’s racism watchdog found the party guilty of unlawful acts of harassment and intimidation against Jews and so legally Starmer must be seen to be making amends.

But the shadow of Corbynism still looms extremely large, not least because the former Labour leader, along with diehard followers, is still claiming the whole ‘antisemitism issue’ was exaggerated to shut down criticism of Israel. The shade of what has been called Long Corbyn falls over the constituency in the north of the country that is now the focus of intense controversy.

Batley and Spen is a mainly working class area which has been has been traditionally Labour but has been heading rightwards for some time. It is split into 20 percent British Asians, mainly Muslims whose families came from Pakistan and Kashmir, and just under 80 percent white British.

All over the U.K., and for more than a decade, Labour has been losing white working-class votes and Corbynism accelerated that. They’ve lost them over Brexit, over what is deemed the party’s "wokeness," and over generally being taken for granted. Batley and Spen has highlighted a new issue; it appears that they are losing the Muslim vote – something they have always assumed to have in the bag - too.

Labour activists are being told that they can no longer count on support because, as some particularly aggressive looking men said when they tried to barge into Labour headquarters one night last week: "You’re all Zionists. You’ve been bought by the Zionists. Why won’t you do more about Palestine?"

One Labour friend campaigning in the constituency last week told me: "Door after door we get told that someone isn’t voting for us because Starmer is a Zionist." On Monday night he had eggs thrown at him: "They said they don’t want Zionists in their area."

How has this happened? Well, partly because Palestine has become a global cause. In the UK, it has bound the left and disparate Muslim communities into fevers of fury. Every weekend for weeks, cities around the UK have been hosting pro-Palestinian demonstrations led by Labour MPs and councillors where a favourite song is, "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free."

The feeling of anger is palpable and has often tipped into antisemitism – with one group of pro Palestinians threatening to rape Jewish women.  Convoy tours north London with speaker shouting "Fuck the Jews, rape their daughters." 

And then, Starmer isn’t Corbyn. He says he "supports Zionism without qualification" and, to add insult to injury, he also has a Jewish wife.

Election posters are displayed on a lamppost ahead of the Batley and Spen by-election this FridayCredit: OLI SCARFF - AFP

And finally, into this already problematic mix comes the preening fedora-wearing figure of George Galloway. He is charismatic, a brilliant orator, and one of the nastiest politicians of the modern British political age.

A former Labour MP and close associate of Jeremy Corbyn, he was thrown out of the party in 2003 when he was alleged to have incited the Iraqi ‘resistance’ to kill British troops and for those troops to refuse to obey orders.

Galloway was an admirer of Saddam Hussein, even travelling to Baghdad to salute him; he is also a confirmed fan of Bashar Assad, the Kremlin, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran (on whose state-backed TV channel he hosted a program for years) and more recently, the hard right, from Steve Bannon to Nigel Farage.

Since his expulsion from Labour, he has formed parties around himself – the Respect Party, the Workers Party of Britain – and trouble often follows.

In 2005, when he was campaigning in London’s heavily Muslim Bethnal Green and Bow constituency against Labour’s Oona King, a Black Jewish woman, she was pelted with eggs as she joined mourners at a memorial to the Jewish war dead in the East End. The egg-throwers shouted out: "You’re fucking Jews." Galloway’s Respect Party said afterwards that there was "no evidence" that the incident was antisemitic. 

She later said: "I have been told by several people that members of Respect have told them not to vote for me because I am Jewish." 16 years later, in Batley constituents are saying they won’t vote for a "Zionist."

Galloway (like Corbyn) loves to pose as the champion of the Muslim community although he isn’t Muslim himself, and he does that by appealing both to socially conservative voices in the community who are genuinely worried about the liberal rainbow world Labour espouses, and by ramping up their natural empathy towards the Palestinians, and hostility towards Israel.

In 2014, for example, another time of tensions with Gaza, he declared Bradford, the Yorkshire city he then represented in Parliament, as an "Israel-free zone." He even abstained from a House of Commons vote to recognize Palestine as a state because the motion recognized the State of Israel too.

He deliberately dog whistles both antisemitism and homophobia although is generally clever – and litigious – enough to usually avoid allegations of either. Sometimes he can’t help himself.

He was fired from his job as a Talk Radio host for antisemitism and cost the radio station a substantial fine for contending that allegations of antisemitism against Corbyn were "literally summoning up the demons of Nazism." In 2015, he expressed "outrage" that a "New York- Tel Aviv axis of evil can have parliament and media dancing to their tune." 

In Batley and Spen, Galloway is a spoiler candidate: he has little chance of winning a percentage of the vote of more than single figures, but that’s not his aim. What he wants to do is make Labour lose, humiliate Starmer and enjoy yet another dance in the media limelight. Some of Corbyn’s media chums have been criticized for their soft interviews with him. Like circling sharks, they are hoping his success could be an excuse for a new Labour leadership challenge.

The by-election’s Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater – whose sister Jo Cox, the constituency’s MP, was shot dead by a far-right activist just a few weeks before the Brexit vote in 2016 – is a lesbian who has faced horrendous homophobic abuse during the campaign. Shamefully for the British democratic process, she now has to have a police guard.

But that is not to say that Labour isn’t partially to blame for adding to the sheer toxicity of this by-election. The party had two choices; go down to Galloway’s level or rise above it, to focus solely on local issues which are the only thing a backbench opposition MP has any actual power over.

Sadly, it has chosen the worst of both worlds – putting out a leaflet on Palestine which strangely omitted to mention Hamas, with Leadbeater posing with a group of activists wearing the pro-Palestinian wipe-Israel-off-the-map T-shirts, as well as another leaflet demonizing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi - to the chagrin of many moderate voices in the party who want less racial tension, not more.

And it hasn’t made any difference; the party simply can’t out-Galloway Galloway unless it wants to get truly dirty down in the ditch. And in the meantime, even starting to go down to his level alienates many white voters.

Labour MPs Emily Thornberry and Naz Shah canvass for candidate Kim Leadbeater ahead of the Batley and Spen by-election. Shah beat Galloway in 2015 in a campaign made vicious by his dirty tacticsCredit: OLI SCARFF - AFP

"We have to, as a party, make a decision about how far we will go to tolerate some appalling attitudes to gay people, women and Jewish people," said one veteran Labour worker who has been in the constituency for the last month.

"Are we seriously for the two-state solution or is it all a bit, "Yes, but obviously Israel is evil," behind closed doors? I don’t know where the line is and if staff aren’t fully clear on our position how can there be hope for a strong message and discipline? It is emotionally tiring, because it can be difficult to fully believe in what I’m supposed to feel in my bones and I know I’m not alone in that.

"For us, there is this bigger debate: What compromises are we willing to make to get into power? It feels like it is all coming apart at the seams."

And, ironically, heading into that gap is the Tory candidate, Ryan Stephenson, currently in the lead, thanks to the Labour votes Galloway has siphoned off.

The Tories are the most pro-Israel party in the Commons. They have an acknowledged Islamophobia problem which they have yet to even really talk about. Their leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has serially offended the Muslim world, comparing women in burkas to post-boxes. The head of the Conservative Muslim Association resigned after Johnson was elected leader, having warned the party’s increasing nativism was threatening to British Muslims.

Yet, while the others slug it out over Israel and Palestine, Stephenson is campaigning solely on local issues and he’ll win. Labour, meanwhile, will lick its wounds and continue to indulge in infighting; the zero-sum vindictiveness of the Corbyn years continues, to the joy of the party’s political rivals.

Nicole Lampert is a London-based journalist who has written for the Daily Mail, The Spectator, The Independent and The Sun. Twitter: @nicolelampert

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