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Labour Tensions Over Gaza Could Last Longer Than Ceasefire Row

Labour leader Keir Starmer at Stamford Bridge football ground (Alamy)

7 min read

Labour figures are hopeful that Keir Starmer is over the worst of the Israel-Gaza row that has engulfed his leadership this week.

While political scientists are downplaying the potential electoral ramifications, many Labour MPs fear it could still take a long time to repair damage caused to the party's relationship with Muslim communities.

Sunder Katwala, Director of think tank British Future, told PoliticsHome that the problem for Starmer to arise from this row was not losing seats at the next general election, but damage to Labour's "community relations" with large parts of the Muslim population.

“What you don’t want as a political party that claims to represent all communities is a message of ‘if we don’t need you at this general election, then we don’t need you’," he said. 

“You want to have policy on Palestine, like on any other issue, which you can explain to people in good faith, no matter their ethnic or religious background."

Only a week ago, Labour leader Keir Starmer was riding high on a successful party conference in Liverpool where Labour was widely viewed as a government-in-waiting, a sentiment further boosted by two stunning by-election victories in former Tory safe-seats in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire.

But Starmer's bubble was swiftly burst on Monday morning when fury erupted from within his own party over the leadership's response to the ongoing crisis in Gaza, and specifically Labour's refusal to call for a ceasefire in the region. According to The Guardian around a quarter of Labour MPs have now publicly called for a ceasefire, joined on Friday by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and Labour's Scottish Leader Anas Sarwar.

"It's been absolutely miserable," one senior Labour MP said of the mood among their colleagues in recent days, and reported "people crying all week" among their parliamentary colleagues. 

"[Muslim MPs] are getting it from their families as well as their constituents. Mums and dads, brothers and sisters are asking, 'Why aren't you doing more?'," they told PoliticsHome.

"Some are panicking about their seats, especially those who haven't been around that long."

By Wednesday Starmer had moved to a policy of supporting "humanitarian pauses" in the region, which puts Labour in line with both Rishi Sunak's UK government and the US. It falls short of supporting a total ceasefire, but calls for the creation of safer conditions so that humanitarian aid can reach innocent victims in Gaza with greater ease.

When Starmer became Labour leader nearly four years ago, one of his biggest pledges was to eradicate antisemitism in the party, which had been exacerbated by allegations against his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. Israel-Palestine remains an impassioned and divisive debate among Labour's MPs and members, and the escalating crisis in the region has tested Starmer's assertion that Labour is now a much greater friend to Israel. "Labour is recovering from the Corbyn-era, and they can’t form a coherent policy when it comes to Israel – it’s all very vague," Yossi Mekelberg, Associate Fellow of the MENA Programme at Chatham House and professor of international relations at the University of Roehampton told PoliticsHome earlier this week. 

One shadow minister described the situation as a "shitty mess" and said that the reaction of the Muslim community in their constituency had actually worsened since Labour shifted towards backing humanitarian pauses. "They see that we were the last to call for a pause so it looked opportunistic, and they say a pause isn’t a ceasefire," the MP told PoliticsHome

Anger that had already been growing following an LBC interview in which Starmer appeared to endorse Israel's decision to withhold electricity and water from Gaza in response to brutal Hamas terrorism, an apparent misinterpretation that he took several days to clarify. On Wednesday, 150 Muslim Labour councillors wrote to Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner calling on them to support a ceasefire. There have been suggestions that some members of the Shadow Cabinet were considering resigning over the matter.

Later that day Starmer, Rayner and Shadow Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood held an impromptu meeting with Muslim Labour MPs on the issue in parliament, but while it was described as "constructive" by somebody present, there was no substantive change to the leadership's position. 

The row has been the recent first sign of genuine cracks in a Labour front bench that for months, galvanised by the growing prospect of the Labour Party's first general election victory in nearly 20 years, had been fiercely unified and strikingly on-message.

A shadow minister who has been concerned by Labour's response to the conflict told PoliticsHome they believed the chances of Shadow Cabinet resignations this week had been overblown. Senior MPs who wanted Starmer to shift his position felt that they would be in a stronger position to do so from within the tent, they explained.

Labour's decision to call for a humanitarian pause rather than ceasefire is backed by Labour figures like MP Steve McCabe, parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), who told PoliticsHome that while he understood the sentiment behind calls for a ceasefire, in practice it would serve to "protect" Hamas.

This shift in policy, combined with Starmer's office deciding to give shadow ministers and local Labour leaders more leeway when it comes to expressing their views on the issue, have helped abate anger among Labour politicians to some degree, though not completely. One shadow minister said they expected parliamentarians and other Labour figures to "test the boundaries" of that new freedom in the coming days and weeks.

Starmer is also up against the fact that fall-out is by no means restricted to the Westminster bubble. A number of Labour MPs have reported receiving large volumes of calls and emails from constituents who are furious and upset with the party's response.

Some MPs in areas with significant Muslim populations have been left so shaken by the level of anger in their inboxes that they have expressed fear that it could cost them their seats at the next general election, and the party a majority government. 

"Trust [with Muslim communities] is lost completely at the minute," said the shadow minister.

But according to Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester, fears over significant electoral damage are premature. The government must call an election before the end of 2024, and Labour's consistent poll leads mean they are widely expected to win.

Ford told PoliticsHome there are a number of reasons to avoid assertions about how this issue could impact the next general election, including a lack of polling of ethnic communities in the UK. This means reliable data about how individual groups feel about issues does not exist in the same way that it does in relation to other demographics, such as age. 

"There is a vacuum being filled by exaggeration and misinformation, which is not helpful in a debate like this," Ford said.

He referred to an "important" case study in the 2005 general election, when there were "really substantial swings" against Labour among Muslim voters in parts of London and Birmingham as a result of then-Labour PM Tony Blair's decision to join the invasion of Iraq. But he was "dubious" that Starmer's LBC interview or position on "a conflict that Britain is not participating in" could generate the same strength of reaction as a UK Prime Minister invading a Muslim country.

Ford added that Muslim voters and others who might be angry enough to withhold their support for Labour at the general election generally "cluster together" in safe Labour seats, meaning any backlash would be unlikely to result in more than a handful of seats being at risk of changing hands.

The fury that erupted within Labour earlier this week seems to have subsided to some degree for now. But with the horror in the Middle East still unfolding rapidly, it's likely that Starmer will continue to face challenges over Labour's position on the most difficult of issues again and again.

Additional reporting by Francis Elliott and Nadine Batchelor-Hunt. 

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