MPs voted in favour of the UK recognising Palestine by an unexpectedly large majority of 262 after a five-hour Commons debate called by Easington MP Grahame Morris. Commentators were quick to dismiss it as “merely an expression of Parliament’s view” that will not commit the Government because it was “only” a backbench debate.
But although the vote is not binding on the Government, it is clear that MPs have changed their views and it is only a matter of time before the Government will have to change its policies. And, although recognition is a minor issue and will not directly affect the lives of Palestinians, there is a good chance that this decisive vote will lead to stronger steps that will begin to put real pressure on the Israelis. The 274-12 vote came about because of a deep underlying shift in MPs’ attitudes to Israel, caused by their shock at the brutality of the Gaza war and their huge postbags of letters from constituents demanding action.
It emerges from the vote that:
- Half the MPs listed as supporters of Labour Friends of Israel voted in favour of recognising Palestine despite last-minute pleas from senior Israeli politicians to vote against.
- 40 Conservative MPs – including some members of Conservative Friends of Israel – backed the recognition motion and the Conservative Home website reported that ‘support for Israel is slipping away’.
Ed Miliband put a ‘one-line whip’ on the vote – meaning that MPs could either vote for the motion or abstain – but 80% of his MPs and 21 of 26 members of his Shadow Cabinet voted for the motion. MPs received a huge number of emails – 57,808 through the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website alone – from their own constituents urging them to attend the debate and vote for recognition. This represents a sea-change in both parties.
Conservative Friends of Israel, who are strongly opposed to the recognition of Palestine, claim to have 80% of Tory MPs on their books (242 of 303), but in the event only six Conservatives voted against. Part of the reason may have been that CFI, realising they were going to lose, encouraged their supporters to stay away from the vote – in the hope that the motion would be approved without a physical division where MPs are counted through the voting lobbies. That would mean that the motion would be declared ‘carried’ but no one would know exactly how many or which MPs had voted for or against the motion.
This plot was foiled by two MP who supported recognition but shouted ‘no’ when the Speaker called for ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ and acted as tellers for the ‘noes’ – without which the Speaker would have been obliged to call off the division. Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn rose on a point of order after the division to explain that he and Batley & Spen MP Mike Wood volunteered as tellers “to ensure that democracy could take place and that Members could record their vote, because those who were opposed to the motion declined to put up tellers”.
If the two ‘no’ tellers are included there were 195 Labour MPs voting for recognition – more than twice the current total of MPs who support Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East. While it has been Labour Party policy since 2011 to support the recognition of Palestine, first by the UN and now by the UK, there was no obligation on MPs to turn up for a backbench debate and the numbers were another indication of the rapid fall-off in uncritical support for Israel on the Labour benches. Coalition ministers were told to abstain, but Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs were free to vote as they liked.
Although only 40 Conservatives voted for the motion, this was a big increase from the 10 or 15 known to support the Palestinian case in the past.
The real surprise was the number of Conservatives who abstained because they were disillusioned by recent actions of the Israeli government. Typical was the distinguished chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Sir Richard Ottaway who told the Commons that he had stood by Israel through thick and thin for 20 years but was outraged by the recent Israei annexation of Palestinian land and “such is my anger over Israel’s behaviour in recent months that I will not oppose the motion”.
It was the highest ever attendance at a backbench debate (other than the European referendum debate which was whipped) and out of a total of 43 speeches, only six were from opponents of recognition, with the result that Conservative MPs who have previously been reluctant to express their support for the Palestinian case spoke with passion and eloquence, as though a gag had been removed.
In the event there were 195 Labour MPs supporting the motion, 40 Conservatives, 28 Liberal Democrats, nine Scottish and Welsh nationalists and four Northern Irish (2 SDLP, 1 Independent, 1 Alliance). The noes were six Conservatives, five Ulster Unionists and one Liberal Democrat. Other than the 140 MPs on the “payroll” vote of ministers and ministerial aides who are expected to abstain in backbench debates, the number of MPs who abstained or were absent was 220. Even if they had all voted ‘no’ (and a number have said they would have voted ‘yes’ but could not be there) opponents of recognition would still have had only 232 votes against the 278 votes in favour of recognition.
Baroness Warsi, who resigned from the Government in August in protest at the strongly pro-Israeli policy, said at the time that many of her ministerial colleagues and most of the officials in the Foreign Office agreed with her, but policy came from a small group at the top. There was a natural majority not only in the country, but also in Parliament and in the Foreign Office for the recognition of Palestine, but “you’ve a small group of politicians who are keeping a close grip on this and who are not allowing public opinion, ministerial views, parliamentary views and the views of the people who work in this system.”