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"Changed" Labour Avoids Row Over Israel At Party Conference

Labour leader Keir Starmer gave a speech at vigil for Israel at a Labour Friends of Israel event on Tuesday night. (Alamy)

7 min read

Labour party conference in Liverpool did not descend into a row over the escalating crisis in Israel and Palestine leaving many in the party feeling the party has entered a new chapter under Keir Starmer's leadership.

A Labour source told PoliticsHome the way the party had navigated the situation was a symbol of how the party had “changed” under Starmer’s time as leader.

“Labour’s united condemnation of Hamas’ terrorism and support for Israel’s right to defend itself this conference is a demonstration of how far our party has changed with Keir Starmer’s leadership,” they said.

As Labour members and officials began to arrive in Liverpool for the annual conference terrorist group Hamas launched a series of deadly attacks in southern Israel, prompting retaliatory rocket strikes on the Palestinian territory of Gaza. 

Over 1,200 Israelis were killed in the attack by Hamas over the weekend, and over 1,000 civilians in Gaza were killed in subsequent Israeli airstrikes. Thousands have been injured on both sides. 

Many in Labour were concerned that the escalating situation – and particularly how it might be reacted to by members and MPs – would dominate the conference as a result of historic tensions over antisemitism. The issue has frequently reared its head during debates around Israel and Palestine leading to it being put under special measures by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Avoiding a new iteration of the row in Liverpool posed a serious test for Starmer, who has made stamping out antisemitism in Labour and regaining the trust of the Jewish community a key tenet of his leadership. 

But as the scale of horror surrounding the attacks in Israel began to emerge a row within Labour did not. One shadow minister told PoliticsHome that any internal party tensions paled in significance to the events unfolding in Israel and they were determined not to make it about them. 

On Monday, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner asked delegates assembled in the busy main conference hall to observe a moment’s silence for the victims of the weekend's attacks.

At a Speaking Up For Palestine Fringe event also on Monday, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a prominent ally of Corbyn, opened his speech by condemning the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians, while also condemning the killing of civilians in Gaza in Israel’s retaliatory strikes on what it says are Hamas targets.

"The scenes of what happened in Israel and to those young people at the music festival was horrifying and shocking," said McDonnell.

"I can't imagine what their parents are going through – so, that's why I do condemn the killing of innocents. I do condemn the killing of those innocents by Hamas.

"But as a father and a grandfather, my heart also goes out to the parents of the children killed in Gaza. There is no justification for the killing of civilians on any side."

Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy also spoke at the event, also condemned the violence and called for a focus on "peace", warning the conflict was an "unwinnable war". 

Filming was not allowed at the event and questions from the audience were not permitted – meaning it ended swiftly after the speakers finished delivering their speeches. The same was the case at a Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) event earlier that day.

Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom Husam Zomlot, who said he had lost six members of his family in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza shortly before arriving at the event, told PoliticsHome Labour values could take Palestine "forward". 

At a Justice for Palestine: End Apartheid event on Tuesday, deputy director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK Ryvka Barnard opened by primarily criticising Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, but also expressed dismay at the escalating violence in the region as a whole. 

Barnard told attendees she was "deeply upset, distressed and saddened by the huge loss of civilian life, for which there can be no excuse or justification". 

"Let me be clear: international law, which must be the basis and standard by which all actions are measured, absolutely prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians, and taking civilians as prisoners and harming them in any way," she continued. 

Audience questions and recording by attendees was also again prohibited.

On Tuesday night a Labour Friends of Israel vigil for the lives of those lost in Israel was attended by many of the shadow cabinet, with speeches from Starmer, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, shadow chancellor and vice chair of LFI Rachel Reeves, and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.

“Tonight our hearts are with you, and our message is clear: terrorists and Hamas and those states that back them are determined to destroy any hope of peace through missiles, bullets, and bombs – we cannot, we must not, let them," Starmer said.

“This act of terror is designed to destroy any hope of peace. A hope we cannot, and will not, give up. So, as we come to terms with this attack, I urge all responsible partners in the Middle East to speak out against terror.”

Earlier in the day a section of Starmer's main conference speech addressing the crisis had received a standing ovation. 

Also in attendance at the LFI vigil was Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman, former MPs who left Labour citing concerns about a surge in antisemitism in the party under the leadership of Corbyn. Both have since rejoined under Starmer's leadership, which the party sees as a symbol of the progress made.

Israel vigil

Speaking to PoliticsHome after the event Mike Katz, national chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) said "the reaction shows how far the party has come in stamping out antisemitism and once again being a safe space for Jews". 

"The vigil at Labour conference was a moment of poignancy no-one who was there will forget," he said.

"Together with the minute’s silence observed by a packed conference floor, it showed how the Labour Party stood in solidarity with Israel and Britain’s Jews and in condemnation of Hamas’s barbaric terrorism.

"For JLM, we felt nothing but empathy and support from the party, from Keir downwards – our thanks go out to them.”

The LFI vigil followed an appearance by shadow foreign secretary Lammy at a Labour Friends of Palestine (LFP) event that same evening, in which he expressed the importance of Israel showing restraint in its retaliatory attacks on Hamas in Gaza.

"Too many families have had their hearts broken before this weekend's events," Lammy said.

"Palestinian casualties were already at their highest annual level since the United Nations began counting: more than 200 killed, including 38 children, and Gaza was already in crisis. In the last three days, more than a thousand Israelis have been killed, and at least 770 Palestinians have lost their lives, thousands more have been wounded.

"I know many of you here will have friends, colleagues, or loved ones in Gaza that you're worried about. I think of the children of Gaza, facing the reality of war, in a place that was already bereft of hope.

"I agree with [French] president Macron when he said we must not confuse the right against terrorism with the most elementary humanitarian right: support for civilian populations."

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