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1 November 2023updated 03 Nov 2023 2:17pm

Why the war in Gaza came to Oxford

The city’s Labour council is haunted by the ghosts of the conflict, and by Jeremy Corbyn.

By Freddie Hayward

On 20 October in a community hall in Abingdon-on-Thames, just outside Oxford, councillor Imogen Thomas stood up at an all-members Labour meeting to condemn the party’s position on the war in Gaza. She announced her solidarity with the Palestinians and resigned from the party. Four other councillors stood up and resigned with her. The group walked out, shouting “Free, Free Palestine” before unfurling a Palestinian flag for a photo outside. Those who remained proceeded to discuss the party’s policy on grass verges.

Six councillors who resigned that evening are planning to form the Oxford Socialist Independents, not to be confused with the Independent Group set up by two other Oxford Labour councillors who had resigned the week before. On 26 October Labour lost its majority on Oxford city council – for the first time since 2010 – after Barbara Coyne became the ninth councillor to resign. Across the country, 31 councillors have so far resigned in response to the party’s position on the conflict. Their rallying call is that Labour should demand a ceasefire. While discontent is spreading, nearly a third of the resignations have been in Oxford.

I met Susan Brown, the Labour council leader, who was at the Abingdon meeting, in the Freemans’ Room inside the cavernous town hall on Monday 30 October. She had cycled from her day job at the John Radcliffe Hospital two and a half miles away. “Sad” and “disappointed” was how she described her reaction to losing Labour’s majority. She wouldn’t disclose whether those who resigned had warned her before the “surreal” meeting in Abingdon. Now, the passage of the council’s budget and plans on social housing, net zero and a living wage are her biggest concerns. Will the loss of a majority jeopardise that work? “I don’t know is the honest answer at this stage,” she said. “I hope not because everyone who has left was elected on a platform, which they were very happy to sign up to. That’s all our manifesto. It’s also the council strategy.”

It’s not surprising that Oxford – a student city comfortable with performative acts of righteousness – is the locus of the resignations. The city has been twinned with Ramallah in the West Bank since 2019. There has “always been this interest in our council and our city in international affairs”, Brown said. “Oxford is a very outward looking city. But I mean, clearly right, we have limited to no influence over foreign policy.” The Victorian essayist Matthew Arnold thought Oxford was the “home of lost causes and forsaken beliefs”. As one local party member put it, politics in Oxford is often “theoretical”.

Jeremy Corbyn inspired Edward Mundy, one of the six to resign, to join the Labour Party in 2017. Mundy, a postal worker, quit because he could not fathom the repudiation of a politics that he thought Keir Starmer would safeguard when he became Labour leader in 2020. Over an oat milk latte in Oxford’s Covered Market, he said he viewed the leadership’s position on Gaza as even more morally vacuous than Starmer’s broken promises to support nationalisation or the uncertainty over NHS funding. And the refusal to scrap the two-child benefit gap? “That is a shocking one as well,” Mundy said.

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[See also: Will Muslim voters turn against Labour over Gaza]

There is an implication from some in Oxford Labour that the resignation of the six councillors was insincere, or at least opportunistic because they were already considering leaving the party. Luke Akehurst, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee who lives locally, tweeted: “I was gutted about brilliant Oxford Labour councillors Shaista [Aziz] and Amar [Latif] resigning last week. But good riddance to these 6 ineffective Momentum hacks. They were never Labour, always Momentum [referring to the pro-Corbyn grassroots group].” Brown said three of the group were not standing for re-election and one – Jubu Nala-Hartley – had not been reselected as a candidate.

But it did not seem as if Mundy was being insincere when he cited the policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the reason he left Labour. He was quick to mention that he signed a letter in solidarity with the Palestinians in April 2021, when the conflict last flared up. But there are reasons for his departure that do go beyond Labour’s current position on Gaza. This was the culmination of a growing disillusionment with Starmer’s divergence from the policies of the Corbyn years.

Mundy believes in a politics dedicated to influencing policy through protest. There’s an argument on the left that Britain’s political and military support for Israel provides a lever with which to shape Israeli policy. The Oxford Socialist Independents’ joint statement shows their resignation was not only a matter of principle but an act designed to change the military policy of the Israeli government. “Britain provides Israel with political and military support, so a call from the leader of the opposition to de-escalate and uphold international law would have been heard,” it reads.

Mundy said he saw the resignations as “part of a broader ‘rebellion’ of the membership and elected members of the Labour Party against what’s happening… That could put a lot of pressure on Keir Starmer.” But who are a group of Oxford councillors to feign control over what the Israel Defense Forces do in Gaza?

I put it to Mundy that the councillors were elected to run housing, waste management and leisure facilities and not prescribe the nature of war in the Middle East. In response, he pointed to the connections between Oxford and Palestine and the city’s large Muslim population, before adding: “Why would we stay members of the party if we can’t possibly align ourselves morally with what they stand for?”

He said they had all acknowledged that they might not survive an election, which shows they in effect chose to give up their public office. The group’s actions have prioritised the expression of solidarity over the wielding of political power. The very way in which they resigned was a stunt to garner media attention. It was a symbolic act intended, first, to affirm the principles of those involved and, secondly, to impact politics through indirect means.

This approach speaks to a paradox that was at the heart of the Corbyn project: the party’s internal democracy was privileged over the party’s success in national democracy. The Oxford councillors were angry that Labour HQ had restricted what could be discussed at council meetings. Outside the party, Mundy looked forward to using “our voice in the council in a way that we were less able to before”. They therefore resigned from the party – jeopardising their chances of holding their seats, if that was even their intention – in protest at internal party restrictions. Protest over power, as Starmer put it in his Labour conference speech.

Later that night a long queue formed outside the Oxford Union for a speech from the brash conservative and pro-Israeli commentator Ben Shapiro. A masked protester with a megaphone dangling from his hand waited outside Mission Burrito on St Michael’s Street to express his disgust. Around thirty protesters accused the Oxford Union of supporting genocide, while hundreds queued to hear Shapiro speak. “Their flag is the wrong way round,” someone in the line remarked of the protesters.

The next day, Keir Starmer delivered a speech that reaffirmed his commitment not to call for a ceasefire. It was not an argument that would reverberate among many former party members in Oxford.

[See also: Keir Starmer struggles to disguise Labour’s divides]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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