Guardian opinion 3.11.23 John McDonnell


The degeneration of the Conservative party under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – corrupt, incompetent and irrelevant – looks increasingly certain to deliver an electoral victory for Labour.

So, the question now is whether Labour is capable of effective government – not just in managing the day-to-day administration, but in responding to potentially world-changing events that require moral judgments and fundamental political choices. Gaza has been the most significant test to date of whether Labour is fit to govern.

When Hamas launched its appalling pogrom on innocent Israelis, there was unanimous condemnation across the Labour party and the trade union movement. There was also unanimity that Israel has the right to defend itself.

It is in determining how Israel exercises that right to defend itself that finer moral and political judgment comes into play. Some people would consider that it is here that Labour’s judgment is found to be significantly wanting, alongside a display of inexperience in the political frontline in a time of crisis and a failure of political delivery.

When the Israeli government took the decision to blockade Gaza, preventing the supply of food, water and medicines, it was an absolutely clear breach of Article 8 of the Rome Statute determining war crimes. The article stipulates it is a crime to intentionally use “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva convention”. More significantly, it was morally indefensible.

Having been in parliament for the past 26 years and witnessed many government decisions to go to war, the Rome statute and Geneva convention have become ingrained in my political decision-making. A lack of this experience may well have been the reason for Keir Starmer responding to the question of the legality of the blockade of Gaza in a way that caused such anxiety and anger.

There isn’t one of us in politics who hasn’t at some stage misspoken in an interview. The problem with this incident was that other frontbenchers were sent out to defend the line, and it then took nine days to attempt to put the record straight. Even then, there was no questioning of the morality of starving civilians.

As the bombs rained down on Gaza, we wept as we witnessed on our television screens the heartbreaking scenes of children and entire families being killed. More than 3,700 Palestinian children have been killed in the first 28 days of the conflict, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

The recitation of ineffective calls for Israel to abide by international law when the indiscriminate effects of its bombing are self-evidents calls into question yet again the moral judgments being made at the centre of the Labour administration.

The same question is being asked about the decision to shelter behind the US’s call for a pause in the bombing and invasion, rather than a ceasefire. When the loss of life has reached more than 9,000 people, how can we morally even consider the proposal that, after a short break in combat, we support the return to the inevitable mass killing of civilians and more children that will ensue from the street-by-street attack on Gaza City?

If there is to be a pause, I would suggest it should be a very brief pause within the Labour party to assess the moral basis upon which decisions are being taken, and for reflection on whether they align with the moral compass that has directed our party since its foundation.

Political mistakes and poor judgment in opposition can cause political problems, but in government they can have disastrous consequences. So it’s best to adjust the moral and political tiller now.

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