“The party’s failure to support a ceasefire now looks extremely beleaguered. This is because Labour’s approach has come crashing up against the reality of the siege and the bombings and the strength of feeling within the labour movement”
By Simon Fletcher
As the death toll in Gaza rises daily, and the humanitarian crisis deepens, Keir Starmer will either be dragged to supporting a ceasefire, or he will provoke even greater anger as his bad line causes an ongoing confrontation with Labour’s base.
One week ago the Labour leader sought to give a ‘clarification’ to his LBC interview where he told Nick Ferrari in answer to whether Israel has the right to implement a siege and withhold power and water from the population of Gaza that ‘I think that Israel does have that right.’ This interview plunged Labour into an internal crisis that has now lasted two weeks.
As discussed previously, this was not a one-off incident in which the Labour leader meant to say something quite different and simply made a mistake. It was the line. Labour’s position was to offer no pressure and thereby no criticism of Israel over its collective punishment of the Palestinians, including the threatened forced displacement of a million people. Labour consistently applied its line over several days including putting the Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry on Newsnight to repeatedly refuse to answer whether Israel cutting off food, water and power in Gaza was contrary to international law, and having the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy refuse to answer whether he backed Israel’s order for the forced displacement of one million people in Gaza, saying it is ‘not a yes or no question’ and ‘war is ugly.’
As Labour’s line churned up a furious backlash, so the party came under pressure to recalibrate. The Labour leadership, having had to hold an emergency meeting with council leaders, then met concerned MPs immediately after Prime Minister’s Questions. A new script including support for a ‘humanitarian pause’ was adopted.
But there were two main problems with the recalibration. One, it was insincere. It sought to present what Keir Starmer said as being something quite different to what everyone watching and listening had heard. Thus it has an inbuilt credibility problem.
Two, it did not go anywhere near far enough. By the time Labour had come round to ‘humanitarian pauses’, momentum had been building over many days for a ceasefire. So the party’s recalibration was hopelessly weak. Labour was once again tailing Rishi Sunak, who had already come out for pauses – although his government’s representative at the UN Security Council had voted against a resolution calling for them.
Labour’s problems were exacerbated over its handling of a meeting with Muslim leaders in Cardiff. The South Wales Islamic Centre issued a statement following his visit that said: ‘We wish to stress Keir Starmer’s social media post and images gravely misrepresented our congregants and the nature of the visit.’
Muslim voters have traditionally been one of the most loyal sections of Labour’s base. However, they cannot be taken for granted, as the impact of the Iraq War demonstrated. Although the life and death of people besieged in Gaza ought not to be seen simply through an electoral lens, it is undoubtedly the case that a fracture with the Muslim communities represents a complicating factor in Labour’s electoral project. Fear of this has undoubtedly driven the party leadership into adopting a partial adjustment of its public statements. That readjustment does not go anywhere near far enough. Keir Starmer’s bad line on Gaza involves a major collision with many in the Muslim communities.
The party’s failure to support a ceasefire now looks extremely beleaguered. This is because Labour’s approach has come crashing up against the reality of the siege and the bombings and the strength of feeling within the labour movement. As the week has come to a close the pace of support for a ceasefire has accelerated. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and the leader of the Scottish Labour Party Anas Sarwar all issued statements in favour of a ceasefire that piled on the pressure and demonstrated how far Labour has misjudged the issue.
76 per cent of the British population think there should be an immediate ceasefire, and only 8 per cent oppose a ceasefire. When the Labour leadership excludes a call for a ceasefire from its statements on the siege of Gaza, it ensures that the majority of the British public is unrepresented.
If the motivation of Labour’s line on Gaza was to show absolute difference with the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, it has in fact succeeded in showing its difference with public opinion.
A major question for those Labour MPs who have not yet supported a ceasefire is whether and when they will join their colleagues in the PLP and beyond in doing so. There has been some speculation that there may be resignations from the front bench. The ITV New Political Correspondent Shehab Khan reported that some shadow ministers were considering resigning but that:
“Sadiq Khan’s and Anas Sarwar’s interventions today have calmed them down, as they now think momentum is shifting in that direction – no need to resign yet as they believe big figures speaking out means pressure is building“
Pressure is indeed building, and that is why more Labour politicians should take now a stand and call for a ceasefire, rather than stand back and allow others to do so. Whether or not that is incompatible with being on the front bench, it would be judged to be the right thing to do by very wide sections of society and within the labour movement.
Though it is obvious that the Labour leadership does not want to be moved further, events in Gaza may well force Keir Starmer’s hand. It would be preferable for Labour to adopt a ceasefire call than not, even if it has to be dragged there. The longer that takes the worse it is. Indeed, the longer it takes the more it will underline the leadership’s poor foreign policy instincts and its bad line. Politicians and parties that are dragged to positions rather than giving a lead are invariably seen as weak or disingenuous.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on October 27th, 2023.
- You can become a subscriber of Modern Left to receive exclusive content and support the platform here; and follow Simon Fletcher on twitter here.
- You can view of a list of Labour representatives who have called for a ceasefire here.