‘The Issue Is Almost Exclusively Palestine’: Palestine And British By-Elections

Paul Simpson | 28 June 2021

British Democracy / Empire / Middle East / Palestine

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1929 Palestine Riots. Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Keir Starmer’s tenure as Labour leader looks increasingly insecure. After losing last month’s by-election in Hartlepool, defeat in the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election would be a significant blow and might well trigger a leadership challenge.

Rather unexpectedly, Palestine has become the most prominent issue in an election campaign in the heart of the so-called ‘Red Wall’. Former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway has placed Palestine at the centre of his campaign as Workers’ Party candidate, and his criticisms of the Labour leadership’s response to the recently proposed forced evictions in East Jerusalem and the subsequent Israeli airstrikes on Gaza appear to be resonating with some voters. The Times journalist Patrick Maguire quoted a local Labour source as saying ‘The issue is almost exclusively Palestine… On Friday evening, Galloway had been around 45 minutes before us in one of our stomping grounds. Nobody wanted to speak to us.’ 

This development has prompted a response from Labour locally and nationally. The party’s candidate Kim Leadbeater has distributed a leaflet which appears to criticise her own party leadership, stating that ‘[t]he British government must do more. I will ensure Labour is more vocal on this. I will be your strong national voice on Palestine in parliament, to government and within the Labour Party.’ Some have even argued that Starmer’s recent question in the House of Commons on Palestinian statehood was intended to bolster Labour’s support in the by-election where one in five voters in the town of Batley are British Muslims.

This is not the first time that Palestine has become a topic for Labour at a recent by-election: Galloway himself has highlighted his pro-Palestinian record in his shock victory in Bradford West in 2012, but anger at Labour’s support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were then arguably more salient factors. While it is unlikely that Galloway can repeat such a feat, he may well secure the votes of a sufficient number of traditionally Labour-supporting electors to ensure a Conservative victory.

Delving further into the past, we can see that British policy in Palestine has been a central issue in various electoral contests, albeit for very different reasons. In November–December 1930, a by-election campaign was waged in Whitechapel and St George’s, an area where one in three voters were Jews.[1] Just four days before the by-election was called due to the death of the sitting Labour MP, the Labour government had issued its White Paper on Palestine–then a British Mandate–which proposed restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine.

The policy was met with ferocious opposition from the Zionist movement, from British opposition parties, and from some elements within the Labour movement itself. The White Paper, authored by Colonial Secretary Sidney Webb, was issued after official inquiries by the Shaw Commission and the Hope-Simpson Enquiry into the causes of prolonged inter-communal violence between Jews and Arabs that had broken out in August 1929.

A group photograph of the members of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 1929, commonly known as the Shaw Commission, that was established to investigate the 1929 Palestine Riots which caused the deaths of 243 Jews and Arabs. Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

The main threat to Labour in the by-election came from the Liberal Party. Barnett Janner, a leading activist in the English Zionist Federation, was chosen as the Liberal candidate. His election address emphasised his longstanding commitment to Zionism and claimed that his party was ‘at the forefront of the fight’ against the White Paper, which he regarded as reneging on the British pledge made in the 1917 Balfour Declaration to create a Jewish National Home in Palestine.[2] When Liberal leader Lloyd-George strongly criticised  the government’s proposals in the House of Commons, one Labour MP accused him of having ‘one eye on the Mount of Olives and the other on a [Jewish] part of the East End of London where a by-election is about to take place.’[3]

In response to Janner, the Labour candidate James Hall issued a special leaflet which insisted that the Labour government was still committed to creating a Jewish National Home.[4] He also informed the party’s Labour-Zionist affiliate Poale Zion that if elected he would vote against his own government if it sought to implement the White Paper.[5] Satisfied by these reassurances, Poale Zion backed Hall’s campaign, a decision that was so controversial that when Poale Zion leaders addressed a meeting in support of Labour, police protection was required to ensure the rally could go ahead.[6]

Labour also faced a challenge from the far left. The Communist Party of Great Britain was resolutely anti-Zionist and viewed the events of August 1929 as a legitimate anti-colonial revolt. Harry Pollitt stood as the Communist candidate and his election address strongly criticised the Balfour Declaration, and when asked whether he believed in Palestine for the Jews, Pollitt replied that he believed in ‘the world for the workers’.[7]

In the end, Labour held the seat but had its majority significantly reduced, with Janner finishing a strong second. Pollitt’s respectable performance indicated some Jewish voters were prepared to support an explicitly anti-Zionist party; a reminder that minority communities are not monolithic. In February 1931, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald essentially annulled the White Paper, although as Paul Kelemen points out, the Whitechapel and St Georges by-election was not the main factor in this decision.[8]

Nevertheless, this case does demonstrate how for almost a century, Palestine has at times had significant implications in a British electoral context. The way the issue has featured, however, has dramatically changed, in conjunction with the make-up of the British electorate. For the duration of the Mandate years (1920-1948), British voters were by and large not sympathetic to the Arab Palestinian nationalist cause.

But with the large-scale migration of South Asians, particularly Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Kashmiris, (along with broader shifts in public opinion) the Palestinians now have a supportive voting bloc in some parts of the UK. Indeed, the parliamentary constituency which now represents the area of Whitechapel has shifted from having a sizable Jewish population to becoming one of the largest British Muslim electorates.

Still, in these differing examples from different moments in history, we do see common threads: intra-party disputes; political leaders intervening in foreign policy driven primarily by domestic concerns; candidates challenging their own party leadership in order to secure elections; and the sudden electoral significance of otherwise disregarded minority communities—Jews in 1930 and Muslims today. More importantly, these instances serve as case studies that demonstrate how Britain’s past as a colonial power and its present status as an active player in the Middle East means that our understanding of the interplay between British political history and contemporary politics in Britain can never solely be confined to the local or national arena.

Dr Paul T. Simpson is an Academic Tutor in Modern History at the University of Sunderland. His PhD examined the Independent Labour Party and Palestine, c. 1917-1939.

[1] Geoffrey Alderman, Modern British Jewry (Oxford, 1988), p. 268. 

[2] Jewish Chronicle, 28 November 1930.

[3] Hansard, House of Commons debates, 17 November 1930, vol. 245, col. 164.

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 28 November 1930.

[5] Elaine R. Smith, ‘East End Jews in Politics 1918-1939: A Study in Class and Ethnicity’, PhD Thesis, (University of Leicester, 1999), p. 192. 

[6] Joseph Green, A Social History of the Jewish East End in London, 1914-1939 (London, 1991), p. 435. 

[7] Elaine R. Smith, ‘East End Jews in Politics 1918-1939’, pp. 195-196.

[8] Paul Kelemen, The British Left and Zionism (Manchester, 2012), p. 23.