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  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
21 February 2024

Labour’s uneasy victory over Gaza

Shadow cabinet ministers are asking why it took an SNP motion for the party to shift its position.

By Freddie Hayward

“Disaster averted” was the appraisal of one shadow cabinet minister. Keir Starmer began the day on course for political defeat. By the end, parliament had adopted Labour’s position on the war in Gaza as its own.

At the centre of events was the House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. His decision to allow a vote on Labour’s amendment to an SNP motion on an immediate Gaza ceasefire – following a meeting with Starmer – caused bedlam reminiscent of Liz Truss’s downfall. By allowing his former party’s amendment, the Speaker indirectly prevented the SNP’s motion from being called, on a day the party was supposed to control the order paper. The Scottish nationalists were inflamed. At one intemperate moment the SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn was told to take his seat. He proclaimed: “I will not sit!”

There followed 45 minutes of MPs requesting answers. Members demanded the Speaker return to the House. He eventually did, printed statement in hand, to offer an emotion-racked apology. (Thirty three MPs have since backed a motion of no confidence in Hoyle tabled by Conservative MP William Wragg.)

A Freudian might interpret MPs’ behaviour as a displacement activity, a reflection of their own powerlessness to prevent the war turning Gaza into debris. The vote, and the impassioned anger on show, was tinged with impotence. Even though a Tory motion to empty the press gallery and turn off the TV cameras was voted down, it was as if MPs did not realise those outside SW1 could witness their conduct. In the words of one Labour MP, “I think colleagues forgot proceedings are broadcast”.

There’s another reason MPs were charged with emotion tonight. The sad reality is that many Labour MPs were desperate to vote for a ceasefire in order to stave off the threats they receive. Some MPs are now exhausted by the abuse. Charles Walker – a well-respected Tory backbencher – made the point well. “People are frightened… If people are changing their votes in this place… because they’re frightened of what will happen to them or their families out there, then we have a real problem.”

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This was the grave undertone to the proceedings: some of Britain’s sovereign legislators want to vote a certain way because they feel threatened. Why is this not more widely condemned? One Labour MP said: “You don’t hear much about it, and I think there’s a sort of collective wish that that’s the case.”

Even though the day ended with no rebellion – Labour’s amendment was simply nodded through as no one on the government benches shouted “no” to trigger a vote – there are murmurings of dissent within the opposition. Some shadow cabinet members ask: why was Labour’s pivot towards an immediate ceasefire not made on its own terms? Why did it take an SNP motion to trigger the publication of its position? There are parallels with Labour’s rushed decision to jettison its £28bn green pledge, which has prompted an internal hunt for the leaker.

“This is the third time in as many weeks we’ve been flat footed,” was how one shadow cabinet minister put it to me. These worries, I gather, were raised at this week’s shadow cabinet meeting. Such feedback is not welcomed by all. “The shadow cabinet need to stop bleating” was the response of one aide. Nonetheless, there’s growing concern that the decision-making process in the Labour leader’s office is inadequate, that political strategy and policy are pulling in opposite directions.

The leadership’s internal problems will bubble along in the background, perhaps being further exposed in the election campaign to come. But these parliamentary shenanigans had a single result. Reports suggest the government pulled its amendment because it did not have the votes. Labour was the party to beat. Keir Starmer the prime minister in all but name. The House gave its support to the party’s motion, designed for a Labour government, not an opposition. Amid the chaos, Labour dominated.

[See also: Threats against MPs need to be taken more seriously]

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