Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is a broad church. This might come as a surprise given the ruthless capture of its operation and messaging by Starmer’s team in recent years, but that’s the line the leadership has now taken in the context of 13 frontbenchers defying collective responsibility over his policy on Gaza by calling for a ceasefire. It is a measure of the dissent that the leadership has acquiesced so easily compared with other occasions when Starmer’s edict has not been carried out to the letter (the invasion of Ukraine, for instance). “It’s right and proper that individual MPs represent their individual constituencies in Westminster,” was how Darren Jones, the shadow chief Treasury secretary, put it. Peter Kyle, a Starmer loyalist, told the BBC the plan was to continue “engaging” with the rebels.
It is crass to see the conflict in Gaza through the prism of British politics (David Aaronovitch has written an excellent piece on his Substack about the narcissism of the moment). But this episode marks a shift in the relationship between Starmer and his party. Smarting from the backlash and the elusiveness of a unifying message, the leadership has softened its tone and sought to engage with critics. One party official told the i’s Hugo Gye: “We understand where people are, and why they have that position given the constituencies they represent, but the party line is clear and won’t move.”
This is noteworthy because it suggests the leadership has adopted an approach to message discipline unique to this issue. In other words, it is allowing MPs to appease their constituents, and their consciences, over the war in Gaza in a way, I’m told, that wouldn’t be permitted with other policies. It’s an attempt to limit the damage by making the outbreak of disunity a one-off. But this is more an expression of hope that unity can be maintained elsewhere (which, given Labour’s strength in the polls, seems likely) than a plan to deal with the divergence in opinion over the issue at hand. Even if this is the strategy, though, that senior party members – including Sadiq Khan and the Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar – are advocating completely different policies from the leader is a problem.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.
[See also: Labour and Israel: A fraught history]