Labour Figures Cast Doubt On Whether Keir Starmer's Gaza Ceasefire Stance Will Hold
Keir Starmer gave a speech at Chatham House on Tuesday outlining Labour's reasons on not calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. (Alamy)
Labour leader Keir Starmer has just about managed to prevent a row in his party over his refusal to call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza from spilling over, but there is growing scepticism that the position will hold.
More than 8,500 people have been killed in Gaza according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel's retaliatory bombing of Gaza followed a massive attack by terrorist group Hamas in southern Israel on 7 October, killing more than 1,400 people. Over 200 people were also taken from Israel by Hamas and are being held hostage in Gaza.
The rising death toll in Gaza has led to a growing number of Labour MPs calling for a ceasefire as the humanitarian crisis continues to escalate. Around 60 Labour MPs have formally called for a ceasefire breaking from the official party line, including some Labour front benchers. They are joined by some Labour regional leaders including London mayor Sadiq Khan and Manchester mayor Andy Burnham. Dozens of councillors across the UK have also resigned over Labour's position in Gaza.
Speaking at Chatham House on Tuesday morning Starmer sought to defend the party's call for "humanitarian pauses" rather than a ceasefire. He also reaffirmed Labour's commitment to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"While I understand calls for a ceasefire, at this stage I do not believe that is the correct position now, for two reasons," said Starmer.
"One, because a ceasefire always freezes any conflict in the state where it currently lies. And as we speak, that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capability to carry out the sort of attack we saw on October the 7th. Attacks that are still ongoing. Hostages who should be released - still held. Hamas would be emboldened and start preparing for future violence immediately.
"And it is this context which explains my second reason: which is that our current calls for pauses in the fighting for clear and specific humanitarian purposes, and which must start immediately is right in practice as well as principle."
But significant doubt remains in Labour over whether the speech managed to quell the ongoing tensions over the party's position on the escalating crisis in Gaza.
One Labour MP who has joined calls for a ceasefire said Starmer's speech was "well-written" but the party's position hadn't changed, and it was unlikely to solve the divisions in the party on the issue.
"MPs will be digesting it and I'll be seeing how their constituents and local council respond to news coverage of it," they said.
"And then I'm sure more MPs will come forward with their views on it. But, ultimately it's not going to age well."
Another Labour MP, while "a big fan of Keir's", said they believed his approach on Gaza was "horribly wrong".
"I don’t think [the speech] goes far enough," they said.
"I think it will have a detrimental impact on the seats we need to win. The minimum he should have called for was a ceasefire."
Other Labour MPs who are supportive of a ceasefire also said they did not believe Starmer's speech would change anything for MPs disillusioned with leadership's approach on Gaza.
One shadow minister also told PoliticsHome they did not think Starmer's position would hold as the death toll rises and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens. However, they doubted there would be high profile resignations from the Labour front bench over the issue – though they did not rule out more junior resignations.
Another shadow minister told PoliticsHome the speech was exactly what Starmer "should be saying", but added the left of the party will not be happy until Starmer does what they are calling for on Gaza.
There is also a sense among Labour MPs that parliament being prorogued, and therefore MPs not currently being physically present in Westminster and able to organise more effectively, is playing in Starmer's favour on the Gaza row.
Former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw, who served as minister for the Middle East under Tony Blair, told PoliticsHome he thought Starmer's current position was "spot on", arguing that it positioned him as a prime minister in waiting rather than a voice of protest.
"It is terribly difficult to get both the tone and the content on the Israel-Palestine question right," he said.
"That's the difference between a leader of the opposition and potential prime minister and a regional politician or Labour backbencher who does not have responsibility for Labour policy, and is not likely to have responsibility for Labour foreign policy any time soon."
Bradshaw's remarks reflect what several Labour MPs have told PoliticsHome that Starmer's position on the ceasefire reflects a desire to show it is a party ready for government and is seeking to advocate for "realistic" options.
In a statement on Tuesday senior Labour MP, Dame Margaret Hodge, said she supported Starmer's ceasefire position, and said Labour "must recognise there are steps" to achieve peace.
"Both sides have made clear they will not heed calls for a ceasefire. So calling for this may make us feel better, but will not help those on the ground right now," Hodge wrote.
"Pressing for something that just might work, as opposed to something that we know will not, is the tough call any leader should be making right now. Keir is correct in his calls for a realistic, lasting route to peace today, and I stand by his remarks."
Labour MP and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) chair Steve McCabe said he believed Starmer had made "a reasonable attempt to appeal to those of goodwill on all sides of the argument".
"We can’t forget this is all happening because of the barbaric Hamas attack on Israel and that over 200 innocent people, including British citizens are being held hostage by Hamas," McCabe said.
"Those with influence in the Middle East need to come together and press for a decisive shift which signals the end of Hamas power in Gaza and the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank and a series of decisive confidence and peace building measures leading to two states where people can live in peace.
"People who can’t commit to that kind of approach are probably part of the problem rather than the solution."
Additional reporting by Tom Scotson.
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