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9 February 2024

Alastair Campbell is still wrong about Gaza

Spinning away an issue that is costing Labour votes is not a good idea.

By Claudia Cockerell

The Labour Party is in a panic, and not just about that abandoned £28bn green pledge. A poll this week found that 43 per cent of British Muslims intend to vote Labour at the next election, down from 86 per cent in 2019. Twenty-three per cent are still undecided. Muslim support for the party has slumped in the last year, with Labour’s position on the Israel-Gaza war cited as a key issue. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times called it Keir Starmer’s “Palestinian problem”.

Now Starmer’s office is scrambling into action and has started polling Muslim voters and holding focus groups, according to the Guardian. But they should be worried about another of Labour’s reliable voting demographics: young people. This fact was thrown into stark relief for me after a fracas with Alastair Campbell on Twitter this week.

I went to see Campbell give a talk with Intelligence Squared on Monday night. Towards the end he was asked for advice by a young member of the audience. Her friends were disillusioned with Keir Starmer over his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. How could she talk them round? Campbell was unequivocal: the friends should swallow their misgivings. Or as he put it, “Get off your high horse and vote Labour.” I wrote a story about it and Twitter erupted. Many incensed users suggested that Campbell was not in a position to lecture on turning a blind eye to Labour’s policies in the Middle East.

Campbell initially dismissed the furore, saying it was a classic case of “how you needed to be in the room, and how once a headline is written those who want to believe it will do so”. Well, I was in the room. I posted a clip of Campbell saying the very words that were written in the headline, and he ended up apologising, and admitting he “could have easily made the same point in a more respectful way”. But it’s what he said as well as the way he said it. Questioning the morals of Starmer’s stance on Gaza is not some virtue signalling exercise – there are no high horses to descend from. It’s a pretty low horse, if anything.

Remember Keir Starmer’s ten pledges from his 2020 leadership campaign? There was the promise to abolish the House of Lords, and to increase income tax for the top 5 per cent, and to focus on a green future for Labour. One by one the policies were binned, until December last year when Starmer went sod it all and took the whole page off his website. But one really sticks in the mind. “4. Promote peace and human rights.” Starmer’s fourth commandment was to “put human rights at the heart of foreign policy” and make the UK a “force for international peace and justice”.

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Was Sir Keir forgetting that pledge when he said Israel had the right to cut off water and electricity in Gaza? (A Starmer spokesperson denied that he said this.) Or when he eventually capitulated and called for a “sustainable ceasefire” – but only because Rishi Sunak and David Cameron said it first?

On Monday night, Campbell gave the strategist’s take on Starmer’s refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire. Part of Labour’s thinking, he explained, is to keep the special relationship with the US sweet until Starmer gets into office and has more influence. “Does he really want to use up political capital now with the Americans,” he said, “in a way that would make your friends feel a bit better for a few days, before they then probably got pissed off about the 28 billion thing?”

In assuming they would only feel better “for a few days”, Campbell grossly underestimates how much young people care about this issue. Voters can excuse a U-turn on an investment policy, or a jettisoned pledge to abolish tuition fees – they’ve grown rather cynical when a politician makes a promise like that. But even lifelong Labour supporters say Starmer’s refusal to call for a ceasefire is unforgivable. Campbell’s language is galling, but so is the idea itself that we should accept that this is a tactical move, and blindly trust that Labour will sort it out eventually.

Starmer has made good on one of his promises – wiping out the scourge of anti-Semitism from the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has left the party and Starmer seems to have a deep horror of aligning with him on anything, which might help explain his positioning on Gaza. But in this, he has forgotten the other great stain on the modern Labour Party, the Iraq War. Starmer marched against that conflict at the time, and he also criticised the invasion on legal grounds. But when the war’s 20th anniversary came around last year, he was silent.

Alastair Campbell gave the spin doctor’s view of Starmer’s reasoning. It’s cold and calculated – but that’s his job, right? To favour political expediency over compassion. “This is the worst government for young people there has ever been,” he told the audience on Monday. He has a point there. But for many, excitement for a Labour government has turned to a profound sense of apathy. 

This isn’t another tiresome reversal on a policy promise that young people will get over eventually. They aren’t going to vote Conservative, but they may well stay at home come election day.

[See also: There were no winners in Tucker Carlson’s Putin interview]

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