Seventeen years ago, a Labour leader was confronted by an internal revolt after refusing to call for a ceasefire in the Middle East. In his memoir A Journey, Tony Blair later wrote of his stance on the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war: “[It] probably did me more damage than anything since Iraq. It showed how far I had swung from the mainstream of conventional Western media wisdom and from my own people.”
Keir Starmer’s position is not analogous to Blair’s. By 2006, Blair had been Labour leader for 12 years and the party trailed the Conservatives by four points in the polls. Starmer has been leader for three years and the party leads the Conservatives by 20 points. But the fractures exposed within Labour this week – the most serious since the nadir of the 2021 Hartlepool by-election – are a reminder of the capacity of foreign policy to divide the party.
For a sense of the historical complexity of Labour’s relationship with Israel, recall that much of the party’s left was once Zionist. In 1946 the future leader Michael Foot and future New Statesman editor Richard Crossman wrote a pamphlet entitled A Palestine Munich? that accused the Attlee government of betraying Jewish statehood.
As late as 1980, Tony Benn wrote in his diary: “I am against the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] recognition, not because I am anti-Palestinian but because the annihilation of Israel is the PLO objective, and they are associated with terrorism.”
Blair wrote of the motives for his stance on the Lebanon war: “By then I felt truly uneasy compromising on it. If I had condemned Israel, it would have been more than dishonest; it would have undermined the world view I had come to hold passionately.”
Had Starmer condemned Israel in his much-discussed LBC interview, it would once have appeared to affirm his world view. In 2003 he marched against the Iraq war and argued in the Guardian that an invasion would be in “breach of international law”. In 2015, as a newly-selected parliamentary candidate, he appeared on a panel at a meeting of the Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign (in front of the slogan “Kick Israeli racism out of Fifa”). His 2020 Labour leadership campaign video featured footage of protesters waving Palestinian flags.
But Starmer’s apparent suggestion that Israel had the “right” to cut off power and water to Gaza gave the impression of someone who had disregarded all of the above. It then took 12 days – a long time in politics – for Starmer to tweet: “It is not and has never been my view that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines. International law must be followed.” By this point, plenty in Labour were not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The recurrent complaint, distilled by one aide, is that Starmer has treated “foreign policy as a matter of internal party politics”. His natural desire to distance Labour from the anti-Semitism prevalent during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership distorted his position on a matter of grave international importance.
Criticism of Starmer – as with Blair and Lebanon – has stretched far beyond the MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group. At an early shadow cabinet meeting, Wes Streeting, Shabana Mahmood and Louise Haigh warned that the party risked losing Muslim voters if it appeared callous. The Liberal Democrats, who profited from anti-war sentiment at the 2005 general election, are already organising in Labour-held seats in Muslim areas.
Starmer, a consistently lucky general, enjoys the benefit of being in opposition rather than in government. Unlike Blair in 2006, this crisis will not terminate his leadership. But Starmer, a past dissenter himself, has been reminded of the combustible nature of Middle Eastern policy.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has an almost unrivalled capacity to fracture Labour, it is because it reflects so many of its eternal tensions: internationalism vs isolationism, religion vs secularism and idealism vs realism. Successful leaders, as this week has shown, must learn to navigate these rapids.