Victory in Batley and Spen will not make the Palestinian question go away
There were three main issues on the doorstep during the by-election in Batley and Spen: police, potholes, and Palestine. A new police station can be built. Potholes can be fixed. But for Labour, even after narrowly winning the seat, Palestine won’t go away.
Last Saturday a senior Labour official told the Mail on Sunday that the party was “hemorrhaging votes” among Muslims in the constituency. Reports in the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News were jammed with vox pops that explained why.
Residents told the JC that “the Zionist lobby” was why they turned their backs on Labour. In Batley, the seat’s largest town, Jewish News found that “the number one issue at stake for the vast majority is that of Palestine”. Voters of South Asian origin make up around 20% of the electorate in the constituency, and 19% of them are Muslim. The party lost their vote in this by-election.
The campaign was marred by dirty tricks, depressing leaflets, abuse, acrimony, more dirty tricks, viral videos, eggings, and George Galloway. He is alleged to have stirred up trouble for Labour with Muslim voters on three fronts — LGBT education in schools, Kim Leadbeater’s position on Israel, and by planting a theory that Leadbeater’s sister Jo Cox was assassinated by the British state due to her support for Palestine.
Galloway is by far the creepiest political figure in Britain today, though it didn’t stop his ‘Workers Party’ taking 21.9% of the vote.
But Galloway did not place the issue of Palestine in these voters’ minds. Anyone who’s spent any time around the British Left, talking to activists, or watching demos, knows the outsized importance of Palestine in the movement’s imagination. As with the bitter fight around Cecil Rhodes’ statue above Oxford’s High Street, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is one where there is feeling that Britain has a unique responsibility to redress the wrongs of the past. This is when you hear the words “Balfour Declaration.”
Arthur James Balfour — variously a High Tory Secretary of State for Ireland, the Leader of the House of Commons, and Prime Minister — is only remembered today in the context of the declaration he made as Foreign Secretary in 1917, in support of a “national home” for the Jewish people in the Holy land.
He was much more than this declaration. A philosopher and high society ornament, Balfour was enigmatic, indecisive, charming, and always yawning. D.H. Lawrence referred to him as an “old poodle.” “If you wanted nothing done,” Winston Churchill wrote, “AJB was your man.” Contemporaries thought him a verbal sorcerer, which is why they kept bringing him back into government.
Balfour watched life from the cold perspective of a satellite orbiting a planet. He was a politician who hated politics. And as an Edwardian aristocrat, it’s fair to say that Balfour’s sympathies to other human beings were impaired. He was anti-Semitic too — an anti-Semitic Zionist. His attitudes towards Zionism were like his attitudes towards everything else: complex and ambivalent.
Read the declaration again: the document that launched a hundred conspiracy theories, ancestors of those circulating through Batley and Spen today. It is a classic Balfourian hedge. What exactly is a “national home”? Is it a nation state? Is it Israel? Nobody at the time knew. Balfour certainly didn’t. He later said that the Arabs would not begrudge the Jews a “small notch” from their territories. Not his best prophecy.
Nor could he have predicted that over a hundred years after his declaration, in an old English mill town, it would be helping to undermine the Labour party’s electoral coalition. (“What exactly is a trade union?” Balfour asked a socialist once.)
George Galloway blazed away in this election with weapons that Balfour built. No British government is going to “solve” the conflict in Gaza — but as a wedge issue, it is perfectly engineered to create conflicts in the Labour Party. That this was, ultimately, the work of a lackadaisical aristocrat — the last High Tory ever to rule in Britain — is a dark irony.