Keir Starmer’s Israel-Gaza position is splitting the Labour Party and shows no signs of going away
A week ago, Sir Keir Starmer was celebrating two seismic by-election wins and now he's battling to stop Labour frontbenchers resigning over his Israel-Gaza policy.
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The phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’ has rarely been more appropriate than to sum up Sir Keir Starmer’s last seven days.
In the early hours of October 20, the Labour leader was celebrating two seismic by-election results - overturning the largest numerical majority in its history in Tamworth and winning Mid Bedfordshire for the first time since the seat’s inception in 1918.
A week on, Starmer is reportedly battling to keep several members of his frontbench from quitting over the party’s Gaza policy, and dozens of Labour councillors across the country have been resigning in protest. So how did we get here?
‘Israel has the right to defend herself’
Following the appalling attacks by Hamas on 7 October, Starmer came out strongly in support of Israel, saying repeatedly that the country “has the right to defend herself”. He told his party conference: “I utterly condemn the senseless murder of men, women and children, including British citizens, in cold blood by the terrorists of Hamas.”
This was bound up in the context of Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. Jewish voters deserted the party in their droves when Corbyn was leader, after he was accused of being too slow to deal with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
Starmer made removing anti-Semitism one of his top priorities, and had the whip removed from Corbyn when he said that "the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media".
However, Labour has always been a party which has a strong section of Palestinian support. At the party’s conference, there were multiple events supporting the Palestinian cause - including one where a solicitor blamed the Hamas attack on UK and US politicians.
Controversial LBC interview
On 11 October, Starmer was asked on LBC if cutting off power and water to Gaza – home to more than two million Palestinians – was an appropriate response by Israel. “I think that Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation,” he replied.
“Obviously everything should be done within international law, but I don’t want to step away from the core principles that Israel has a right to defend herself and Hamas bears responsibility for the terrorist acts.”
It was this comment which has really drawn anger from sections of his own party. Dozens of councillors have now resigned from the party, with Shaista Aziz, now an independent on Oxford City Council, writing in the Guardian that Starmer’s words were “disturbing”.
On 14 October an email was sent out to party members urging them not to attend Palestinian demonstrations or table motions that are “prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the Labour Party”.
It wasn’t until 20 October that the Labour leader sought to clarify his position, saying that he acknowledged the “real concern and distress” caused, as councillors started resigning.
“I was saying that Israel has the right to self-defence, and when I said that right I meant it was that right to self-defence,” Starmer said. “I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines.”
Since then, it is thought Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has killed thousands of Palestinians, while Hamas still hides out in the strip with around 200 Israeli hostages. The war has threatened to spill over into other parts of the Middle East. On Wednesday, Starmer’s spokesperson said the Labour leader would be in favour of a “humanitarian pause” - to allow aid in and British nationals to leave - however he has resisted calling for a ceasefire.
Meeting with MPs
This led to a crisis meeting earlier this week with around a dozen mostly Muslim MPs, which included at least one front bencher. NationalWorld heard that two other Labour Cabinet members were considering their position over Starmer’s comments.
While in Prime Minister’s Questions, Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Yasmin Qureshi appeared to contradict Starmer by referring to the Israeli attack as a “collective punishment”. She asked Rishi Sunak: “This is collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza ... how many innocent Palestinians must die before this Prime Minister calls for a humanitarian ceasefire?”
The meeting led to Starmer putting out a fresh statement, saying that the amount of aid and essentials going into Gaza is “completely insufficient to meet the humanitarian emergency on the ground” and calling for supplies to be “urgently ramped up”.
He said that “we support humanitarian pauses” and said there “can only be a political solution to this crisis” as he urged for a restart of the talks to broker a two-state solution.
One MP who was at the meeting told the PA news agency Starmer was “in listening mode”, adding that “everybody was there had a chance to get things off their chest”. The mood was described as “generally quite civilised” but also “quite firm, people said what they needed to say”.
“There was a consensus on the point that a ceasefire needs to be called. I don’t think he’s quite there yet,” the MP added. “He said that things are moving, things are evolving, we’re already on the pause idea but we have to build consensus.”
Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, who was among those present, said it was a “very good” meeting He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme they “explained what we were experiencing on the street, our constituents and our councillors were going through and how do we start to move forward”.
“It is not a resigning issue, because we belong to a party for a purpose,” he added. “When you are outside of that you have no say, so I wouldn’t encourage anyone to resign.”
While a senior Labour east London councillor, from an area with a number of Muslim and Jewish residents, told NationalWorld that Starmer’s latest statement “is better than the first one”, and he said that “Starmer should be saying more openly … that we want to see peace in the Middle East … you cannot, as human beings, switch off electricity, water - those things are important”.
He added that residents were unhappy with Starmer’s initial comments to LBC, but thought his latest message may reconcile them.
Battle within the party
More and more senior Labour politicians are now disagreeing with Starmer and openly calling for a ceasefire. Today (27 October), Sadiq Khan, the party’s most senior Muslim politician joined “the international community in calling for a ceasefire”.
The Mayor of London said: “It would stop the killing and would allow vital aid supplies to reach those who need it in Gaza. It would also allow the international community more time to prevent a protracted conflict in the region and further devastating loss of life.”
Former shadow minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC Radio 4: “We would like to see a ceasefire because we have to be ambitious for peace within the region. Of course Israel has a right to defend itself, what Hamas did was a crime against humanity … but what we are seeing in retaliation is collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” Dr Allin-Khan however struggled to answer questions on what the end game would be after the ceasefire, and how Hamas would be dealt with.
One Labour insider told NationalWorld it “would be incompatible for Keir to say Israel has a right to defend itself and then call for a ceasefire”. They added: “Labour MPs have got too used to being in opposition, Keir is thinking about what he would do as Prime Minister. Based on the UK’s position in the world, based on international diplomacy, if Keir was PM he would have no option but to say Israel has a right to defend itself - he’s thinking like a leader.”
While Shadow Environment Secretary Steve Reed asked MPs and councillors what they’d be saying if a Hamas-style attack had occurred in the UK. He told Sky News: “I completely understand and empathise with colleagues who are seeing what’s going on in Gaza and are just feeling desperate, so many viewers will be looking at those scenes today and feel just anguish at the pain and suffering that is going on.”
“But what I would say to colleagues is if this attack that Israel suffered had been on the UK, if it had been on the US, our state, the United States and our state would have sought to defend ourselves to protect our citizens by dismantling the capability of a terrorist organisation that carried it out, that applies to Israel too, they have the right under international law to do that.”
Asked if the row could have an impact at the ballot box, he said: “I think (it) won’t because … in politics, you should do the right thing, not the electorally expedient thing.” However a survey of 30,000 Islamic voters by Muslim Census found that while in 2019 71% voted Labour, now only 5% said they would.
What’s certain is that whatever position Starmer takes, someone will be left unhappy.