Ian Austin

Boot them out, Sir Keir, for the good of the party

Labour should cast adrift backbenchers like John McDonnell, Apsana Begum and Tahir Ali


Apsana Begum MP (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

February 08, 2024 10:04

On October 7, London teacher Latifa Abouchakra posted an ecstatic video celebrating the Hamas attacks in southern Israel.

She praised the atrocities as a “triumph” and “homecoming”, called Hamas terrorists “armed fighters” and said the hostages were “settlers” and “prisoners of war”.

Despite all that, Labour MP and former shadow chancellor John McDonnell was billed to share a platform and speak alongside her at a Palestine Solidarity Campaign event in Harrow on 20 January (it is unclear if he knew in advance she would be speaking, although they were both advertised).

On 29 May, 1972, a group of Japanese students flew into Tel Aviv’s Lod airport. After collecting their luggage, they pulled out hand grenades and automatic weapons and started shooting indiscriminately. Twenty-six people were murdered and more than 70 were injured.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) claimed responsibility. They had recruited the terrorists.

After the attack, a photograph emerged that had been taken shortly before the attack of one of the gunmen with Ghassan Kanafani, who was not just one of the leading Palestinian writers of his generation but the PFLP’s spokesman.

Nonetheless, in January, East London Labour MP Apsana Begum delivered a speech in which she urged an anti-Israel meeting to turn to Kanafani for “hope”. In the same speech, she referred to “the last 75 years of occupation of Palestine”, which suggests that she thinks any Israel at all amounts to “occupation”.

Her colleague, Tahir Ali, MP for Birmingham Hall Green, had to apologise after last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions when he accused Rishi Sunak of having “the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands” over the Israel-Gaza conflict.

He claimed that “recently released documents reveal that the Foreign Office had serious concerns about Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law and its ongoing assault on Gaza” but that “this assessment was hidden from Parliament while the Prime Minister boldly stated his confidence in Israel’s respect for international law”.

No one will be surprised to discover that he did not apologise for the claim the information had been “hidden” nor for the demand that Israel’s ability to defend itself be weakened, but merely for the way he had expressed his views.

McDonnell, Begum and Ali are all still Labour MPs and full members of the Parliamentary Party.

Kate Osamor was not so lucky. Labour suspended her for saying Gaza should be remembered as genocide in a post about Holocaust Memorial Day.

Her remarks caused widespread offence, with the Holocaust Educational Trust calling them a “painful insult to survivors of the Holocaust”. Again, her apology was not for the substance of her remarks but but for “any offence caused by my reference to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza as part of that period of remembrance”.

So far, Sir Keir Starmer has not put a foot wrong since the October 7 atrocities. His support for Israel’s right to defend itself and his refusal to support a ceasefire have been resolute and determined, even in the face of sustained pressure form some in his party.

It would obviously be ludicrous to allow Ms Osamor to stand as a Labour candidate at the forthcoming election because no one would believe she had changed her views. But why have Mr McDonnell, Mr Ali or Ms Begum not also been suspended? At the very least, Mr McDonnell needs to make clear if he knew in advance who he would be speaking with.

It would be in Sir Keir’s interests to ensure all four of them and the rest of the hard-left Socialist Campaign Group of MPs are replaced by mainstream, moderate candidates for the next election.

While the polls point to him becoming prime minister, he is coming from such a long way behind after Corbyn’s 2019 defeat that it would take a record-breaking result to achieve a majority of just one seat.

The prospect of a Labour government with a small majority — or no majority at all — having to negotiate every vote with McDonnell and the rest of them must give Starmer and his whips sleepless nights.

Booting them out now would not just show just how much he has changed Labour, it would give him a more united party after the election. It is the right thing to do as well.

Lord Austin is a former Labour MP and a life peer

February 08, 2024 10:04

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