The pressure on Keir Starmer over his response to the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza is intensifying after Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Anas Sarwar became the latest senior Labour politicians to publicly call for a ceasefire.
The opposition leader is grappling with growing discontent among the party, with around a quarter of MPs backing an immediate ceasefire and dozens of councillors resigning from Labour in protest.
On Wednesday (25 October), Starmer called for “humanitarian pauses” to allow aid into Gaza amid a developing humanitarian disaster in the Middle East. But he maintained that Israel has a right to defend itself following the 7 October Hamas terrorist attack. The softening of Labour’s position followed a meeting between Starmer, his aides and the party’s Muslim MPs, but also mirrored similar shifts by Rishi Sunak, the EU and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
It was estimated today (27 October) that 7,000 Palestinians, including at least 2,913 children, have been killed in the Israeli bombardment since Hamas’s terror attack.
The Labour backlash has its roots in an 11 October LBC interview in which Starmer appeared to suggest that Israel had a right to withhold power and water from Gaza as part of its response. It took the leader, who has always said military action should be conducted within the confines of international law, some nine days to fully correct the record.
The interventions by Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, and Khan, the Mayor of London, both Muslim politicians, and the Greater Manchester mayor, Burnham, shows there is still unease over Labour’s position. They are all high-profile party figures who enjoy their own personal mandates. Rather than making any direct demands of Starmer, they said they’re joining “the international community” in calling for a ceasefire.
Allies of Starmer have underlined the risk for an aspiring prime minister to depart from the US-UK line at a time when Hamas holds more than 200 hostages, including British citizens. The leader is also undoubtedly wary of triggering concerns among the Jewish community given the allegations of anti-Semitism levelled at the party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Starmer has enjoyed near-complete control over all factions of Labour since becoming leader in 2020. This crisis has led those close to him to worry he may have neglected the soft left and liberal elements of Labour’s coalition, as part of an over-correction away from the Corbyn era. Many MPs who vented their anger with Starmer this week have returned to their constituencies to meet with distraught members of their Jewish and Muslim communities. Several of those MPs want the opposition leader to demonstrate more empathy and understanding.
The choices he makes and the tone he strikes in the coming days may define the next phase of his leadership.
[See also: Labour and Israel: a fraught history]