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Why after all the good work dragging itself to the brink of power is Labour risking its ruthlessly secured unity over the issue of Palestine? Even close allies of the leader are angry at Sir Keir Starmer’s studiously nuanced position. The current horrors put it at the forefront of public minds but it is not of central importance to most voters. Nor, to be brutal, does very much hang on Labour’s view of the conflict.
The answer is that Palestine holds an outsize place in the Labour psyche. This goes beyond understandable immediate sympathy. The issue is one of overwhelming importance — often obsession — to the left’s mobilising classes. Meanwhile, unfailing support for Israel has now become a badge issue on the right — a Tory ministerial aide was sacked on Monday for backing a ceasefire.
This illuminates a larger, unwelcome feature of modern politics, and one increasingly true of both left and right across western nations, which demands that activists unquestioningly buy into their team’s whole set of values or policies. In politics it is ever more difficult to choose a single, you are required to buy the whole album.
While this is primarily an activist trait, it bleeds into the wider mainstream movement — influencing and shaping priorities. On the left the “album” culture also requires signing up to support climate change activism, trans rights and radical racial politics. Each cause necessitates accepting the other parts of the agenda at face value. On the populist right it pulls in nationalism, climate scepticism, China hawkery and resistance to the diversity agenda.
Another feature is that those issues that most animate activists routinely stand very low on the list of voter priorities. The unquestioning adoption of these agendas can explain political mis-steps such as the SNP’s misreading of the public mood over trans rights.
Starmer’s crime is to have opposed a ceasefire in Gaza, preferring only a “humanitarian pause”, and insisting on Israel’s right to defend itself. In part he is driven by his need to define himself against his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. But his stance and effort to quell dissent have riled not just his hard-left enemies but also allies who feel calling for a ceasefire is in no sense an extreme view.
The ferocity of this row inside Labour is partly due to innate sympathy for the people of Gaza but is also a matter of political identity. Palestine is a key cause for left ideologues and must not be challenged. All struggles are unified behind a central anti-capitalist and anti-western colonial critique which divides the world neatly into oppressors and oppressed.
This “album” mentality explains why, for example, there were no huge rallies for the massacred Muslim civilians of Syria and no left boycott of Iranian TV despite the regime’s persecution of women and gay people. Neither nation is a US ally. The central issue is less Muslim lives or human rights than whether the abuser fits the ideological profile of an oppressor. Palestine stands high among demo-organising groups — trade unions, students, radical environmentalists, the Stop the War Coalition — Syria does not.
It is why, even before the Israeli retaliation, Chicago Black Lives Matter tweeted images of Hamas paragliders with the words “I stand with Palestine”. And why, back in 2017, Jewish lesbians were thrown off a gay rally in the US for carrying a rainbow flag with a Star of David.
None of this is to denigrate the sincere and traumatised thousands who have joined rallies in recent days, nor to do anything but despair at the rising death toll in Gaza. The Palestinians are a wronged people. But two wrongs do not make a right and the indifference shown to the victims of Hamas highlights a world view in which there are innocent and guilty civilians, deserving and undeserving dead. In their Manichean analysis, the protest organisers are not doing enough to distance themselves from jihadi groups and open antisemites. Faced with this, even some liberal Jews and diehard critics of the Israeli leadership find themselves turning away from Gaza.
While the most hardline positions are not those of the mainstream Labour party, they still subliminally shape moderate left values — and the views of younger progressive voters who unquestioningly accept the wider canon as “what people like me think”. This is why Starmer’s stance is so problematic for many. Like Tony Blair before him, he is defying the album culture.
Something similar is visible on the right. Israel has become a cause for conservatives, even more so in the US. In wider UK politics, the most hardline Brexiters are often the angriest climate sceptics, the Covid minimisers and the most committed to anti-intellectual attacks on the liberal elite.
Why does this matter? All movements have core beliefs. The answer is that the album culture is deepening. It silences scepticism and narrows parties — often to the point of hounding out dissenters. And it becomes self-perpetuating. Activists select candidates in their own image. It also, in the extreme, dehumanises opponents and pulls politicians away from the moderation and compromise that intractable problems generally require.
In the current crisis, it ultimately takes us to a dark place where those who want a just settlement for Palestinians are unable to express horror at the Hamas massacres, while those whose affections lie with Israel struggle to weep for the benighted citizens of Gaza.