How seriously does Keir Starmer take the Gaza crisis engulfing his party? Could it cost Labour a lot of seats at the next election and, therefore, in a close contest, electoral triumph? Perhaps belatedly the party leader gets how dangerous a moment this could be for him. It is the biggest crisis of Starmer’s leadership.
Two things must be said straight away. One, he is personally against a ceasefire until Hamas has been defanged; this is not the background whisperings of old Blairites but what he really thinks. Two, he badly misspoke in an 11 October LBC interview by saying Israel had the right to withhold power and water from Gazans, and was too slow to correct himself. This is political inexperience, flat-footedness – not heartlessness.
In an argument inside his office between those who see the threat of defecting Muslim voters as minor compared with the interests of so-called hero voters – precarious, socially conservative people who voted for Brexit but could turn out for Labour – more interested in the cost of living, and those who are deeply worried about the politics of the Middle Eastern crisis, the worriers have won. Hence the hastily arranged speech on 31 October in which Starmer reiterated why he was opposed to a ceasefire in Gaza and supported humanitarian pauses only, and gave his wider view of the conflict.
Labour politics picks up leaders on domestic issues and then forces them to become foreign policy experts at speed. In the decline-of-empire phase, when the party boasted former military figures such as Clement Attlee, James Callaghan and Denis Healey, and trade negotiators like Harold Wilson, this mattered less. But Starmer’s inexperience in Middle East politics and history is now being tested.
In one way only, this is a crisis framed entirely around a single word, “ceasefire”. The demand from the elected mayors Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, and from the Labour Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, is that Starmer should use it. Scores of Labour councillors agree. Around a quarter of the Parliamentary Labour Party, including former Starmer enthusiasts, are on the same page; the hard left calls him a disgrace for not doing so.
But if Starmer listened, apologised and reversed, his authority would be shot. In his first big foreign affairs crisis, he would have suffered a kind of humiliation. He would have given in to the street. That carefully constructed impression of a top-down, ruthlessly disciplined machine would be history. “Flip-flop” jibes would enter the conversation.
And this is just what his hard-left critics want – to see him reduced to a broken, token leader. They are out for a ceasefire, no doubt – but at home, they are just as much out for revenge. And voters of all kinds may have noticed Starmer’s struggle. The latest research from Deltapoll, with fieldwork in the final days of October, found his personal rating down by 12 points, though Labour’s lead over the Tories actually increased by one.
Let us look at “calling for a ceasefire”. Such an exclamation would make any decent person feel better. The more misery and horror that is revealed from inside Gaza – and I fear there is more to come – the more that’s true. But calling for one and getting it are two entirely different things. Labour’s ability to persuade the Benjamin Netanyahu government and Hamas to stop fighting is less than zero.
In any case, how much authority does anyone believe the UK wields in the Middle East these days – either with the Israeli government or, indeed, with Tehran and Hamas? Moral authority was blasted away after the Iraq War. We can “demand” whatever we like, and we feel good about it, but nobody’s listening. To that extent, the ceasefire argument now ripping Labour apart – even if a U-turn by Starmer persuaded the Prime Minister to change direction, itself a fatuous thought – is semantic and tokenistic.
Yet this is a crisis for Starmer, not for Rishi Sunak. A few prominent Muslim voices have disturbed Conservative unity, Sayeeda Warsi most notably; the Peterborough MP Paul Bristow lost his government job for supporting a ceasefire. But this is not a dilemma equally felt by the main parties, because of the greater importance to Labour of Muslim voters. There are almost four million in England and Wales. Community leaders tell me Muslim voters used to regard Labour as “a soft way into politics” but have never been more united on any issue as they are over Gaza.
The Muslim Census group surveyed 30,000 Muslims across 575 constituencies, and suggested that only 4.8 per cent would vote Labour now, against 71 per cent at the last election. Because the study was carried out on social media, mainstream polling companies have derided it as meaningless. Inside Starmer’s office, they simply don’t accept those figures, reckoning that by the time of the election, 10 per cent or less of Muslim voters might be angry enough to switch. “That’s 300,000 and if 300,000 people are angry and mobilise, we should take that very seriously – but it won’t shift seats,” one aide said. The Walthamstow council by-election at the end of October, where Labour’s Shumon Ali-Rahman held on to the seat vacated by Alistair Strathern, the new MP for Mid Bedfordshire, showed little sign of tectonic shifts in the Muslim vote.
But even if you discount the detailed Muslim Census numbers, something big is happening inside the community. One Muslim organiser said: “You can attack the survey on technical grounds, but you can’t attack its fundamental message that people have turned their back [on Labour]. It wasn’t polling data but it was a snapshot of anger.” Naveed Asghar Rana, a Scottish Tory who chairs the Conservative Muslim Forum in Scotland, points out that 75 per cent of Muslims north of the border live in just three Glasgow constituencies. As in England, there is much talk of putting up independents, which would split the Labour vote. “Muslim communities tend to rally round their candidate – friends, family, uncles, aunts, all work together,” another Conservative Muslim tells me. “It is like a village.”
The main reason for Labour to avoid complacency about this is that the other side is working so quickly. Spreadsheets are doing the rounds within Muslim communities with the positions on Gaza taken by individual Labour MPs, and mapping how they have changed as the crisis develops. (Jewish community groups are doing much the same.)
This data could be used to shift Muslim voters away from Labour, and MPs are beginning to get spooked. There will be money, Labour insiders believe, perhaps from Qatar; others fear Russian or Chinese troll farms may be recruited online to spread dissension.
Labour’s traditional opponents are watching with interest. Conservative organisers believe 30 seats could now be in play – and that is, of course, well within the range of denying Labour an overall majority. At the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine’s meeting in the Commons on 25 October, which was addressed by the Qatari and Jordanian ambassadors, one unusual attendee was Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader.
What can Starmer realistically do? Pivoting to demand “pauses” in the assault to allow humanitarian aid in and hostage negotiation only takes Labour to the same position as the Tories – and yet a party with a proudly internationalist and strong human rights record ought to be able to develop a distinctive position of its own.
Labour should start with the danger of the conflict spreading, and shift its attitude to the Netanyahu government. Everyone needs to make the plight of hostages – another reason a ceasefire that leaves Hamas in charge of Gaza is a no-go – more central.
Support for the Israeli people after the barbaric terror attacks of 7 October is nothing less than decent. But support for Netanyahu is another thing entirely. For how long should the UK accept its relative isolation as a pro-Israel member of the UN without demanding something in return from Israel’s leaders? This is where Labour could take a genuinely useful leadership role. It’s time to speak out much more forcibly about the extension of settlements in the West Bank and the treatment of Palestinians there. The front bench needs to go beyond platitudes about a two-state solution to much harder questions of how to actually advance towards it, talking to the Palestinian Authority and sister parties in Israel (though the left there is weak).
Starmer’s decision to make a speech that looks beyond the next horrible period was essential. But he needs to be clearer that there can be no peace in the region while Israel pursues an expansionist policy aimed at driving out Palestinians. He has been flat-footed at moments, for sure, but he hasn’t toppled over; nothing is irrecoverable. He retains the authority of an opposition leader 20 points clear in the polls. Had this not been the case, we would have seen more high-profile defections and resignations already. Disciplining Labour figures that call for a ceasefire would not be right, but he needs to send a message that abuse of colleagues will cost people their jobs.
There are other important lessons to be learned. Tony Blair never operated in opposition or in power without powerful and semi-independent cabinet colleagues: Robin Cook, John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Clare Short all had a lot to say on foreign affairs. Recent weeks would have been much easier for Starmer if he had a wider circle of colleagues and advisers with whom to bounce around ideas and language.
The left has been divided over Israel and Palestine not just in the UK but across Europe and the US; and everywhere, there are malign outside players keen to widen divisions. In a dangerous world and in the context of what Tories predict will be a “security election” next year, a Labour leader with a confident analysis of national interest is essential. That is unlikely to be a leader pushed off balance by marches or online abuse.
None of this matters as much as the misery and horror in Gaza – nothing like it. But the authority of the probable next British government is in play; millions of voters struggling to understand what Keir Starmer would be like as prime minister are watching with narrowed eyes.
[See also: Will Hezbollah’s leader ignite a regional war?]
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts