Ian Austin

Starmer must hold his nerve in the face of Galloway

Polling shows the wider public want Labour to stay its course over Gaza


George Galloway awaits official results as counting continues in the Rochdale by-election (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

March 01, 2024 09:35

We saw the best and worst of our country on Thursday.

The day started with the Prince of Wales visiting a central London synagogue to listen to Jewish students talk about anti-Jewish racism on campus. The event was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust and William also met concentration camp survivor Renee Salt who talked about the resurgence of antisemitism.

It ended with the election of George Galloway in Rochdale.

Look at the town’s problems. The proud former mill-town that has struggled to attract new jobs. Empty and derelict shopping centres. Most people would have heard of Rochdale recently thanks to grooming gangs abusing young girls. Then it hit the headlines because the town’s public housing is run so badly a poor little lad died as a result of damp and mould in his home.

The election should have been about jobs, schools, hospitals, housing and crime. But in comes veteran rabble rouser George Galloway to exploit grievances, stir up division and make sure it was about the conflict 3,000 miles away in Gaza instead.

This is the man who was expelled from the Labour Party for calling on British troops to “refuse to obey illegal orders”. He praised Arab dictators and called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the biggest catastrophe of my life”. Talk Radio sacked him for posting a tweet it labelled “blatant antisemitism”.

Obviously there is a terrible war on the news every day, but it was the same issue three years ago at the Batley by-election across the Pennines in West Yorkshire.

We all watch what is happening in Gaza with horror. No doubt many of those joining the marches each week mean well. But where are the protests about the humanitarian catastrophe caused by civil war in Yemen? There are no marches for the millions murdered in Africa.

I have been to watch some of these protests. I didn’t see signs condemning terrorism, demanding the hostages be released or calling for a two-state solution. You do see people carrying placards with racist slogans or chanting support for terrorism, jihad and intifada.

No one is saying everyone who marches is a racist but if the only country you protest against or want to see abolished is the only Jewish one, it is difficult to argue you are not an antisemite.

Do the maths. The organisers say 200,000 marched against Israel last weekend. Even if we are really generous and imagine for a moment that only one in 20 are racists, extremists or support the terrorists, they would still be the biggest racist marches in British history.

It isn’t just the marches. The CST have recorded the biggest increase in antisemitism in history. Jewish shops and restaurants have been attacked. Jewish students are being victimised on campus.

Our country has to face up to this. The obsession with Israel is the latest incarnation of centuries of anti-Jewish racism. Islamist extremists and the hard-left are exploiting the conflict to spread their hatred of Israel, radicalise young people and divide local communities.

The election became a nightmare for Labour who had to dump their candidate after he was recorded voicing crazed conspiracy theories claiming Israel deliberately allowed 1,400 of its citizens to be massacred on October 7 to give it the 'green light' to invade Gaza.

Despite all that, only the Labour Party can deal with this issue in places like Rochdale where it dominates local politics and has the support of the Muslim community. They must show a lead and give local people the confidence to take on the extremists.

Nationally Labour will come under huge pressure too, but Sir Keir Starmer must hold his nerve.

He showed strong and determined leadership in supporting Israel after the atrocities on October 7. He faced down his internal critics and was clear that Israel had the right to defend itself, deal with Hamas and free the hostages the terrorists had kidnapped.

His stance won support from people had previously been sceptical about his leadership.

It was not just the right thing to do. The polling showed strong support for Israel amongst former Labour voters who turned away in disgust when Corbyn was in charge and whose support Labour must win back.

Changing course now would be the worst decision. Not only would he lose the support his approach won after October 7, he would not placate his critics either.

The scenes from Gaza are horrific. Every innocent civilian injured or killed is a tragedy. This is why Labour have pressed the Israelis on humanitarian aid. But Starmer knows that the terrorists are hiding behind civilians and that there is no prospect of peace without Hamas – who have promised to repeat the October pogrom again and again – being defeated.

This is why he must hold firm.

March 01, 2024 09:35

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