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9 November 2023

Labour should avoid falling into Suella Braverman’s trap

The biggest risk for Keir Starmer is being associated with a position that his opponents could portray as anti-Western and anti-British.

By David Gauke

It is not in the Home Secretary’s nature for her public contributions to be measured or nuanced. If emotions are intense and need calming, Suella Braverman can be relied upon to inflame them further. The more sensitive the issue, the more outspoken she will become.

It is therefore no surprise that on the subject of marches in London in support of the Palestinian cause, Braverman has jumped in with her studs showing. These are, in her words, “hate marches”.

Her words have been greeted with much criticism and her ministerial colleagues have been challenged over whether they would use the same language. This will not bother her. After all, much the same can be said of her public interventions most weeks.

Branding all of the marchers as “haters” is certainly provocative. People are entitled to express their opinions and the ostensible cause for which the protesters are marching is a popular one. A ceasefire between Israel and Gaza has the support of a large proportion of the population, even if it is not the position (rightly, in my view) of either of the main parties. Most people look at the pictures of what is happening in Gaza with great sympathy for Palestinian civilians. Nor is the Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu with an indefensible policy on settlements in the West Bank, well-suited to winning over moderate opinion in the West.

That Braverman is the most prominent critic of the marches, and is such an uncompromising and unsubtle one, does not, however, mean that there is nothing troubling about the protests. Many of the marchers just want the killing to stop and by no means have all of them chanted “jihad” or “intifada, intifada” or “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. Of those that did, not all would have understood what they were saying. But many in the crowds must have comprehended the anti-Semitic nature of these chants and done nothing to discourage their fellow marchers. No wonder that many Jews are currently steering clear of central London at the weekends. A safe space for anti-Semitism has been created.

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While public opinion is sympathetic to Palestinian civilians and critical of the Israeli government, the nature of the protests will increasingly alarm moderate opinion. Concerns that the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph was at risk of disruption or that the site was going to be a target on Armistice Day were overblown, but it is not unreasonable to consider that protests are inappropriate this weekend – even if the public pressure Braverman has placed on the Metropolitan Police is well beyond what is acceptable.

Of course, the charge will be made that Braverman, in particular, is exploiting the situation, seeking to divide the nation for political gain. That is her modus operandi, after all. But whether her comments are driven by political calculation or genuine anger (it is almost certainly both), for those of us who dislike the populist tone, her criticisms – crass though the language might be – will strike a chord.

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[See also: Has Starmer dared Sunak to sack Braverman?]

Some of those marching on London’s streets simply want peace but many of the protesters see the Israelis as colonial settlers with no place in the Middle East, a viewpoint that has been brilliantly demolished by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It is an argument that is explicitly hostile to the West. Israel is seen as an outpost of Western imperialism and Western imperialism is evil. It is the mindset that enables some to describe Hamas as “friends”.

Imagine for a moment that Jeremy Corbyn was still leader of the Labour Party. There he would have been on the streets, marching in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Presumably, he would not have engaged in the anti-Semitic chanting but, like many others, he would have been present but not involved. It would have been a gift to the Tories. For all the claims that all Corbyn wanted was peace, the charge would be levelled that what really motivated him and his supporters was a hatred of Western values. A charge that would be merited.

Much has been made of the political risks for Keir Starmer in supporting Israel’s right to self-defence and refusing to back a ceasefire. Councillors and shadow ministers are resigning.  

Starmer, I am sure, is sincere in his position on Gaza but he will also be aware that the biggest political risk for him is to be associated with a position that his opponents could portray as being anti-Western and, by extension, anti-British.

In terms of his policy on Gaza, Starmer has chosen the least worst option politically and, as long as he remains aligned with the position of the UK or US governments, he will not create an opening for the Tories to accuse him of re-Corbynising the Labour Party.

The next and growing challenge, however, will be his attitude to the protests. Starmer must tread carefully, finding a tone that respects the genuine anger felt by many over Israel’s actions and upholds the right to protest while also recognising that such rights are limited and that there should be zero tolerance for anti-Semitism. He can be more nuanced and thoughtful than Braverman (it would be hard not to) but fail to articulate adequately the latter points and create a political vulnerability.

There is a wider issue beyond the protests. Some of Labour’s supporters want their party to be the party of placard wavers and of anti-Westernism. Many of those people have spent the last few weekends marching. They should not be in any doubt: that is exactly what the Conservatives want Labour to be, too.

[See also: Where are the leaders who can tell us who we are?]

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