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1 November 2023

Starmer has set Labour’s position on Gaza – but is it too late?

The real test for the leader is whether his intervention renews party unity.

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer yesterday (31 October) delivered the most extensive defence yet of his decision not to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. The brewing dissent in Labour since conference ended meant that any change in his position would have been portrayed as a capitulation. As Andrew writes, “in his first big foreign affairs crisis, he would have suffered a kind of humiliation”. Instead Starmer chose to stay his course. His argument rested on the premise that a ceasefire in Gaza was not practical because it “would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capability to carry out the sort of attack we saw on 7 October”.

Why it took so long for Starmer to explain his position in full when his party’s unity was fraying under the weight of the issue is not clear. The initial tactic of hoping the storm would pass failed. As one Labour MP texted in: “We seem to be in a position where everything is reactive, but also so slow in reacting that by the time we do react, events have moved on.”

The political problem of restoring collective responsibility remains. Some close to Starmer have so far seen the recent spate of ill-discipline as a one-off. The leader himself yesterday didn’t say he would sack dissenting party figures. That period must now be over. It is hard to imagine how his MPs can continue to defy their leader when he has laid out his position so explicitly.

Starmer left open the possibility of calling for a ceasefire once the Israeli hostages have been rescued and Hamas’s infrastructure destroyed. Some on the left have interpreted this as a sign he is shifting towards their position. In reality, I think it reflects a desire to create space for Labour to change its position in accordance with the government and the White House. This commitment to act under the aegis of the US, and Labour’s preference for consensus, aligns with everything we’ve heard from Starmer’s party on foreign policy.

Beyond the party politics, this was one of Starmer’s most comprehensive speeches on the Middle East to date. He called for Israel to make it clear that those forced to flee from their homes in Gaza must be allowed to return because “the most painful blows are those that land on the bruises of history”. Illegal settlements in the West Bank must cease. He recommitted a Labour government to pursuing the creation of a viable Palestinian state, although he darted around a question on whether the UK has the influence to bring that about. For all the ambition, that is the problem he will encounter if he wants to deliver on these promises as prime minister.

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[See also: Will Muslim voters turn against Labour over Gaza?]

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