Afzal Khan, MP for Gorton, is likely to be your MP if you’re a student at the University of Manchester. He is also one of 56 Labour MPs who, following a motion put forward by the SNP, voted in favour of an immediate ceasefire in the Israeli-Gaza conflict.
Khan’s vote was significant, as he was one of ten shadow ministers who resigned from Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet. Following his resignation, he sat down with Manchester Media Group to explain his position: his belief that the West is failing the Palestinian people, and the future of the Labour Party as a result of this issue.
Khan wasted no time opening up on his feelings on the matter, detailing the scale of the tragedy we’ve seen unfolding: “I found it really troubling the whole thing. The loss of life is around 14,500 and now we’ve seen a pause many more bodies will be found in the rubble, 5000 or so”.
Not only did he make it clear just how devastating these past few weeks have been, but he also pointed out the futility of it all, “We seem to have an idea of how it should be resolved […] there should be two states, so that is what needs to be achieved. Why go through the wars when we know what the answer is?”
Despite this, the Labour Party’s official position so far has been to advocate for a humanitarian pause, which is in keeping with much of the Western World. Yet some may feel the contrast between a ceasefire and the position Labour has is somewhat ambiguous; more of a game of semantics rather than a fundamental difference.
Asked about this difference, Khan explained that “The fundamental difference between the two is that a pause is for a limited duration […] another way of looking at this pause is just giving some people food and then [letting them] be killed. The important point is [to] stop the killing. This would happen with a ceasefire”.
He continued that without a ceasefire “We just keep going through the cycle of violence”. Khan was keen to emphasise we need to “deal with the root cause” and not symptoms of it, dealing with “the symptom was not good enough for me”.
Prior to the vote, Afzal Khan held the position of Shadow Minister for Exports; if Labour were in government he would have worked within the Department for Business and Trade. However, following the vote, Khan resigned from Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet. Asked why his vote resulted in his resignation Khan was quick to point out that he “felt that what we were offering was good, but it wasn’t good enough in the sense that [the SNP] were going a step further, which was ceasefire, which was more in line with my position”.
As a result, Khan showed a respect for parliamentary procedure, “If you are on the front bench, which means you’re a shadow minister, then there is collective responsibility. So what the leadership decide, you’re responsible for that”. Consequently, he felt that in opposing Labour’s position, resignation was “the only right thing to do, so that I am then free from that collective responsibility, and that’s why I had to do it”.
When asked if he had spoken to Starmer since his resignation he wanted to make clear that “he understands that there are those who may have different positions, [but] we all want peace. He’s been patient […] when I had made the speech asking for a ceasefire he had not taken action [against me]”. However, Khan has not spoken to Starmer since his resignation.
Labour has come under a significant amount of criticism over its advocacy for a humanitarian pause rather than a ceasefire. Critiques from would-be Labour supporters range from opinion polls showing a steep drop in Muslim support, to councillors quitting their positions. However, Khan explained that Labour’s position is focused on “what is realistically achievable”. Indeed, this is true, with Israel and Hamas agreeing to a four day truce just days after the vote, although this was in no way related to the vote in the British Parliament.
However, Khan was not without criticism himself over Starmer’s position, which is overwhelmingly in line with the Americans. He expressed disappointment with America’s deep commitment to Israel. “I think if our good friend [America] is in the wrong place, as a sincere friend, then you have a duty to tell them not to go along with it”. Instead of looking across the Atlantic Ocean for guidance on our foreign policy, Khan urged Parliament to look at the “hundreds of thousands of people coming out asking for a ceasefire. We should be a representative body, Parliament and MPs, surely we should take that into account”.
Khan had “over six thousand emails” from members of the public, largely expressing agreement with his position. “I have never had anything close to this in the last six years […] I think overwhelmingly people across the board who have written to me have been saying this has to stop”.
His position on recent pro-Palestine protests taking place on the University’s campus was clear: “The right to protest is pretty fundamental. It’s part of the democracy, the values we have, many of these great achievements that we have achieved have not been without struggle”. He urged the University to listen to its students, with them having a “responsibility to the students [to] listen to them, and in a way help them, encourage them”.
When asked what he will do if some students face disciplinary action for being involved in these protests, he wanted to reassure students that he will “work with them personally” in order to get the University to “show better compassion” to the outcry over the conflict amongst the student body. He later urged the University to follow Starmer’s leadership by allowing students to have different opinions without facing punishment.
Khan told us that Starmer “didn’t even rule out” allowing those MPs who voted for a ceasefire to take up their positions once again in the future. “He understood, you know, that they’re all coming from a good place. And he also, in a way, underplayed the differences that exist by acknowledging that we’re all sort of trying to travel in the same direction”.
Khan wanted to make clear that this split in the Party is not something that he thinks will threaten Starmer’s leadership. “I want to see a Labour government and even if I’m on the backbench, and I said this to Keir as well, my number one priority is to see a Labour government because I think that would be far better than the government we have, even on this issue of Gaza”.
Whether Afzal Khan’s desires for a Labour government will come into fruition, following the Party’s criticism over its position on the Israeli-Gaza conflict, is yet to be seen. With frontbenchers inside the Parliamentary Party such as himself and Jess Phillips breaking ranks, and other Labour key figures such as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan publicly backing a ceasefire, Starmer has to tread carefully regarding this issue.
Ultimately Starmer will just have to hope that the Party’s usual supporters are focused more on other issues when heading to the polls at the next election, or face the consequences of his (in)action.