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16 November 2023

Labour’s Gaza revolt is less damaging for Keir Starmer than it appears

Both the rebels and the leadership have a mutual interest in working together.

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer’s authority took a knock last night when 56 Labour MPs voted for an SNP amendment calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Ten frontbenchers, including Jess Phillips, resigned in the largest revolt since Starmer became leader. But the situation might not be as bad for him as it appears.

When MPs break ranks they can get a taste for rebellion. Ask a Tory whip. If you are already classed as a rebel, and therefore less likely to get promoted, why not vote for what you believe in one more time? At the very least, the rebellion signals that Starmer’s grip over his parliamentary party is not absolute despite the appearance of control and unity since the expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn in 2020. The passion with which MPs have rebelled speaks to the problems any future vote on Gaza will cause Starmer. 

But the problem shouldn’t be overstated because, in the words of John McDonnell, the Gaza vote was largely a matter of conscience. On ITV’s Peston show, McDonnell, one of the rebels himself, downplayed the significance of the rebellion for Starmer. “On issues of conscience you should allow a free vote,” he said

Even if the rebels were inclined to make a habit of disobedience, the connection between Labour’s position on Gaza and, say, tax policy seems small. One does not necessarily follow from the other: the strength of feeling over Gaza is far stronger than over fiscal matters. 

In addition, no frontbenchers called for Starmer to resign and the rebels’ resignation letters sought to reassure the leadership that they would cause no further trouble. Phillips, the most prominent frontbencher to resign, wrote that she would “join the backbenches committed to being nothing but an asset to the delivery of a better future and Labour government”. Who wants to jeopardise the best chance of a Labour government in 13 long years?

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That is part of the reason why the likelihood of reconciliation between the leadership and some of the rebels is high. The pool of MPs from which Starmer must choose shadow ministers is limited. He will probably need some to return to the frontbench soon. And with government beckoning, they might be happy to oblige.

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