It’s easy to scoff at the sheer narcissism of the eight Labour frontbenchers two Parliamentary Private Secretaries who lost their jobs last night, after defying the whip and voting and for an SNP motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Easy, because that’s the obvious response to their self-absorption. The resignation letter of Jess Phillips, for example, is a study in egocentricity – as if her decision to vote to allow Hamas to remain in situ (which is what a ceasefire means) actually mattered to anyone except Ms Phillips herself.
The spectacle is reminiscent of Labour’s 1935 party conference debate over standing up to Mussolini, when Ernest Bevin witheringly dismissed its pacifist leader George Lansbury for ‘hawking your conscience around’.
But it’s not only the frontbenchers who have been hawking their consciences around. Altogether, 56 Labour MPs voted with the SNP – over a quarter of the PLP. So, yes, let’s mock these fools. But there is a deeper message from last night.
On one level it has helped Labour. It has removed from the ministerial ranks ten MPs who clearly had no business being there. And it has further enhanced the reputation of Sir Keir Starmer, who has been resolute since October in his support of Israel’s right to defend itself. Starmer has been superb – consistent, firm and correct.
That, however, is where the positives end.
Because last night was the clearest demonstration so far of the biggest problem Sir Keir faces in converting a massive poll lead into an election win: Labour MPs.
On an issue over which they have no actual power, and on which their views are a complete irrelevance, a quarter of the PLP nonetheless broke the party whip to vote against the leader.
None of what happened last night is surprising. Some of those who defied the whip have a track record of antisemitism, either spewing it out themselves or giving a nod and a wink to others. Many of them were enthusiastic backers of Jeremy Corbyn.
Ah, Jeremy Corbyn. In the end, try as Sir Keir might to run as far and as fast as possible from the man’s shadow, he cannot escape it. Not just because, as the Tories will quite understandably never stop repeating, he tried twice to make the man who cannot call Hamas terrorists prime minister. More so, though, because for all Sir Keir’s admirable efforts to disinfect Labour, Corbyn’s poison still lingers. It lingers in the party members who voted for him, but more importantly it lingers in the Labour MPs who share his views. Yes, they are a minority of the PLP. But as British politics has shown to ruinous effect in recent years, minorities can have enormous influence – and enormous destructive influence.
If last night was an example of how these people voted when nothing mattered except their own narcissism – and their fear of their own party members if they did not vote for a ceasefire – imagine how it would be if their vote did actually matter. Imagine that last night Labour had been in office and Labour PM Keir Starmer had been unable to get his own party to support him in Parliament. Further, imagine this had been a vote in which the stance of the British government did actually matter – on domestic issues, such as how we tackle Islamist extremism or antisemitism, or any of the myriad other issues.
And then ask yourself this. Why were some of these people on the front bench in the first place? Why was Naz Shah, who reposted on social media a map showing Israel moved to the US, with the caption, ‘Solution for Israel-Palestine conflict – relocate Israel into United States’ to which she had added that this ‘might save them some pocket money’, on the front bench? Why was Afzal Khan, who shared a post alleging an ‘Israel-British-Swiss-Rothschilds crime syndicate’ and ‘mass murdering Rothschilds Israeli mafia criminal liars’, on the front bench? Why was Yasmin Qureshi, who in 2014 compared the situation in Gaza to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, on the front bench? Why was Andrew Slaughter, who wrote that ‘time and again, the Hamas leadership – in Syria as well as Gaza – has given signals that it is prepared to compromise on or abandon the policies cited by Israel and its supporters as barriers to dialogue’ on the front bench? Why was Dan Carden, who was reported by a journalist sitting behind him to have sung ‘Hey Jews’ to The Beatles’ song ‘Hey Jude’ on a coach trip – which he later denied – on the front bench?
And if you think that by resigning last night these people have ended all chance of a ministerial role if Labour wins power, well I have a flying pig to sell you. Labour remains suffused with the likes of the 56 MPs who are either too stupid to see the consequence of a ceasefire or who actually desire giving Hamas the chance to regroup. And that is a big problem for Sir Keir. To put it mildly.
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