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11 November 2023

Why did Keir Starmer risk a Labour crisis over the Middle East?

On Israel, America and a waning Atlanticism.

By Oliver Eagleton

Keir Starmer’s response to the brutalisation of Palestine marks a new low for him and the party he leads. It is worth recounting the details of it, if only for the benefit of future historians. Following Hamas’s bloody attack on 7 October, which led to the deaths of 1,400 Israelis, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government launched a relentless bombing campaign against the trapped population of Gaza. It rained missiles down on schools, hospitals, residential buildings and civilian evacuation routes while cutting off food, fuel, medicine and water to the entire enclave. The Israel Defense Forces declared that “the emphasis is on damage, and not on accuracy”. When asked on 11 October to comment on this collective punishment in an interview with LBC, Starmer offered his full-throated support, backing the complete besiegement of the Strip. He dispatched other frontbenchers to defend this position in media interviews in the days after.

A string of Labour councillors rapidly resigned and relations were poisoned between the opposition and the Muslim population. The party’s general secretary David Evans tried to smother criticism by warning Labour members not to attend protests or bring pro-Palestine motions to constituency meetings. But popular revulsion proved impossible to contain. Facing pressure from their constituents, senior Labour politicians refused to conform to the party line, and Starmer was eventually forced to change course – conceding that Israel’s “right to defend itself” did not, in fact, extend to blockading basic necessities such as power and water. He then sought to demonstrate the depths of his compassion by calling for limited “pauses” in the assault.  

Yet Starmer refused to resile from his basic policy, which he elaborated in a speech at Chatham House on 31 October. He rejected the widespread demand for a ceasefire, claiming that this would only embolden Hamas to “start preparing for future violence”. Instead, he lined up behind the Israeli war effort while endorsing further measures to “protect civilians from bombardment”. Starmer did not explain what those measures might be. He declined to say whether Israel’s actions had breached international law, or whether they were morally justifiable. Asked if he condemned the severing of Gaza’s telecommunications and the forced displacement of its residents, he replied that he would not be “adjudicating on each and every issue”. (This made for a contrast with even the White House press secretary, who expressed active opposition to the communications blackout earlier this month.)

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Because of the Labour leader’s intransigence, the Bradford East MP Imran Hussain has now resigned from the front bench (reportedly jumping before he was pushed for not following the party line). Four more shadow ministers are primed to follow, according to party officials, and about ten others have been placed on “resignation watch”, according to the Guardian. Allies of the leadership, from the MP Jess Phillips to the London Mayor Sadiq Khan to the shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter, have demanded an end to hostilities. Arguably, given the strength of public opposition to Starmer’s stance, a space has been opened up for a serious left-wing challenge to Labour at the next general election – should, for example, Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets-based Aspire Party decide to field candidates on an anti-war platform.

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What explains Starmer’s willingness to detonate this internal crisis? It is plainly not a matter of electoral calculation, since 76 per cent of voters supported a ceasefire in one YouGov poll conducted last month. His approach is, rather, determined by two factors: an automatic reflex to distance himself from the legacy of Corbynism, and an ideological commitment to Atlanticism. The first has, over the course of his leadership, developed into a morbid obsession. Popular policy solutions such as wealth taxes or nationalisations have been ruled out, partly because they would summon the spectre of his predecessor. In this case, a pragmatic assessment of the unfolding conflict in the Middle East is precluded by the fear that objecting to the slaughter of Palestinians would somehow mark a regression to the dark days of 2015-19. The trauma of those years is deeply ingrained in Starmer’s team. Their terror of repeating the past has warped their outlook on the present.  

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The second tendency runs deeper still. As a young human rights lawyer, Starmer dissented from military adventures such as the US-led invasion of Iraq. Yet as head of the Crown Prosecution Service, he coordinated the institution’s overseas work – sending prosecutors across the globe to assist anti-drug campaigns and “counterterrorism” operations – with the help of the Obama administration. He learned first-hand that the British security state is bound up with the American leviathan, and that loyalty to one implies fealty to the other. This outlook has now been imposed upon the Labour Party. He has proscribed criticism of Nato among its MPs and followed Joe Biden’s lead on every substantive foreign policy issue, attempting to outflank the Tories in sabre-rattling against the West’s “strategic rivals”. Now, as Gaza is pulverised, he has made sure to align his general approach – full support for Israel’s war aims plus gestural lamentations about civilian casualties – with that of Washington. The orders of the hegemon are sacrosanct. Where Biden dodders, Starmer will follow.  

If Keir Starmer becomes prime minister next year, we can expect him to retain these political instincts. He will try to banish the memory of the Corbyn years while paradoxically invoking them as a negative exemplar. And he will display a constant readiness to follow American instructions – even if they are passed down by a president as hapless as Biden or Donald Trump, neither of whom seems capable of overseeing a stable empire. We are witnessing the chaos that these impulses have wrought within the Labour movement. It is only a matter of time before they do the same to Britain.

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