Keir Starmer faces mounting pressure in the Labour Party over his response to the Israel-Hamas conflict, with councillors rebelling and some insiders estimating that a majority of MPs may now support a humanitarian pause in hostilities.
The Palestinian health ministry said yesterday (24 October) that since Hamas’s terror attack on 7 October, 5,791 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombardments in Gaza, including 2,360 children. The crisis in the Middle East has reverberated across the UK, particularly in Muslim and Jewish communities, many of which are represented by Labour MPs.
Downing Street has said five British citizens are believed to be among hundreds of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and that the terror group killed “at least” a dozen British citizens on 7 October, when its fighters took the lives of around 1,400 people.
Labour’s current position is that Israel has a right to defend itself within the confines of international law, that aid must be able to reach Palestinians via humanitarian corridors and that a political path to a two-state solution must be sought.
While some Labour MPs believe Starmer has “walked a difficult tightrope quite well”, a larger and more vocal group is frustrated and claim his operation has been too slow to adapt. The anger has its roots in a failure to correct an interview Starmer gave to LBC on 11 October, in which he suggested that Israel had the right to cut off power and water to Gaza as part of its response, until nine days after the broadcast. According to insiders, that delay has had disastrous political consequences.
“Issues in Westminster are usually seen as communications problems but sometimes, if allowed to fester, they are actually problem problems – this is one of those times,” said a Labour source.
The row got worse after Starmer visited Muslim leaders at the South Wales Islamic Centre on Sunday (22 October). A statement by the centre said the leader had “gravely misrepresented” the “nature of the meeting” on social media, which it said was to raise the plight of Palestinians.
[See also: Cutting through the fog of war]
Frustration is at boiling point, not just among left-wingers more disposed to be hostile to the leadership, but across all wings of the party. “I think our early position – or at least the communication of it – was a disaster,” said one Labour MP. “We’ve got to the right sort of place now, but some of the damage has already been done and Starmer doesn’t have the knack that people like [Sadiq] Khan, [Andy] Burnham and [Anas] Sarwar have for lower-key engagement with community groups where he looks like he’s listening and empathising.”
A senior Labour figure noted that the issue was “eliciting quiet disagreement from people you’d usually expect to back Starmer to the hilt”, singling out Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence, who indicated her position by challenging Rishi Sunak to condemn Israel should it breach international law.
At last week’s shadow cabinet meeting, Shabana Mahmood, the most senior Muslim Labour MP, Louise Haigh and Wes Streeting are said to have warned Starmer that the party risks losing Muslim voters if it appears callous.
Flo Eshalomi, the shadow minister for democracy, departed from front-bench messaging – something that usually results in dismissal – in the Commons when she called for a temporary ceasefire. However, the record of her remarks in Hansard is different, stating instead that Eshalomi called for a “temporary humanitarian corridor” to allow in urgent aid to Gaza. It is not clear if a correction was sought.
In local government, eight Labour councillors have resigned in Oxford, costing the party its majority on the city council, while a further 15 have left the party elsewhere in the country.
One senior MP blamed a “bunker mentality in Loto [leader of the opposition’s office]”, suggesting that Starmer’s team had failed to consult more widely on Labour’s position despite the recent by-elections. But Starmer is thought to be mindful of the views of Jewish voters and MPs who, though content with Labour’s current position, are said to have wanted stronger criticism of the Met’s slow response to anti-Semitic incidents in London at the weekend and of the BBC’s refusal to refer to Hamas as a terrorist group. Some allies doubt that Starmer will shift position and call for a temporary ceasefire while Hamas still holds hostages, some of whom are British citizens.
World leaders are beginning to soften their position, however, and the Labour leader may follow suit. The former US president Barack Obama wrote yesterday that “the Israeli government’s decision to cut off food, water and electricity to a captive civilian population threatens not only to worsen a growing humanitarian crisis; it could further harden Palestinian attitudes for generations”. Joe Biden, while rejecting a ceasefire, has also reportedly told Israeli officials to delay a ground invasion of Gaza, cautioning that the Israeli Defense Forces may not be sufficiently prepared to take on Hamas fighters, who have a network of tunnels within the Strip to hide in. EU foreign ministers have endorsed a “humanitarian pause” to allow in international aid. A full meeting of European leaders, who are divided on the Middle East crisis, will be held tomorrow.
[See also: The deadly logic of existential war]