In responding to the catastrophic escalation of hostilities in the Middle East both Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have agreed, across the political divide, that Israel has a right to defend itself and that international law should be respected.
But the Labour leader’s response since Hamas’s attack on 7 October has provoked a notable backlash among Labour activists. This began when the Labour leader gave an interview to LBC and was asked if Israel’s response could justifiably include restricting access to power and water in Gaza, where 2.2 million Palestinians are effectively trapped.
“I think Israel does have that right,” Starmer said. “It is an ongoing situation, 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 these terrorist acts.”
For some party members and activists, this was a step too far by Starmer. Several councillors, including Amna Abdullatif, the first Arab Muslim woman elected to Manchester city council, announced that they would resign from Labour.
In response, Labour held an emergency meeting with councillors in an attempt to strike a more nuanced tone. An email was then sent out to all of Labour’s local government representatives today underlining that “there must be humanitarian corridors and humanitarian access, including food, water, electricity and medicine”. It said: “We must never forget that at the heart of this are millions of innocent lives: Palestinians and Israelis, men women and children. People who want no part in this destruction, who want nothing more than security for their families, whose greatest desire is the prospect of a future that is not dictated by hatred and war.”
Starmer’s spokesman has since suggested that the LBC interview confused Labour’s position because “there were overlapping questions and answers based on what had been being said before”.
The Middle East has historically been a fraught subject for Labour. In 2006 Tony Blair’s defence of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon helped to accelerate his departure as prime minister after a cabinet revolt. Ed Miliband’s support for Palestinian statehood as Labour leader also divided the party and put it at odds with the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
More recently, Labour was placed in special measures by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2021 after the watchdog found that the party had acted unlawfully in its treatment of Jewish members under Jeremy Corbyn‘s leadership. Repeated allegations of anti-Semitism are seen as one of the key reasons Labour suffered its worst election defeat since 1935 in 2019 and Starmer is clearly determined to show solidarity with Israel.
But some insiders nonetheless believe Starmer should have taken a more balanced approach in his LBC interview and fear that party unity may have been jeopardised.
More than 40 MPs, largely from Labour’s left but also including SNP, Green and Conservative MPs, have signed an early day motion calling for a ceasefire. So far most backbenchers have focused on calls for stronger humanitarian aid and the protection of civilians. The risk for Starmer is that some inflame activists by sharing unverified information, as Andy McDonald, the MP for Middlesbrough, appears to have done when he suggested the explosion at al-Ahli hospital was an Israeli “war crime” (early US intelligence reports suggest the blast was caused by a Palestinian rocket misfiring).
David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, addressed this point in the House of Commons when he urged MPs to be “wary of disinformation and to avoid dangerous speculation before the facts are clear”.
Most Labour MPs are now looking to Joe Biden, the US president, to set the terms of debate. Israel has agreed to allow basic aid into Gaza following his Middle East visit.
It remains unclear whether the British government will seek parliamentary approval for any UK response to the crisis. And while Starmer has held Labour together for now, next Monday’s regular meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party could prove a combustible occasion.
[See also: Who is to blame?]