Starmer’s New Israel Problem

Photograph Source: Chris McAndrew – CC BY 3.0

The Labour Party is once again in crisis over Israel, but not for usual reasons. Keir Starmer is facing a revolt from his own MPs and councilors over his support for Israel’s criminal conduct against the Palestinians.

Facing mounting pressure to call for a ceasefire, Starmer gave a speech at Chatham House to try and end the controversy over his position. But there would be no concessions to peaceniks. Instead, the Labour leader doubled down on his opposition to a ceasefire.

Starmer repeated Hillary Clinton’s incoherent argument that Hamas would be “emboldened” by a ceasefire. A ceasefire would just allow Hamas to regroup and strike back at Israel. This would rule out any ceasefire ever again.

However, Starmer tried to make it a more humane position by stressing his position would lead to an eventual ‘cessation’. He called for a ‘humanitarian pause’ and a two-state solution. For now, though the relentless bombing of Gaza must continue, according to Sir Keir.

This strange saga began with an interview on LBC radio during Labour’s party conference. Starmer was asked to comment on the crisis and he issued his condemnation, but presenter Nick Ferrari wanted more.

Perhaps sensing a trapdoor over claims of anti-Semitism, Sir Keir moved to outflank right-wing critics and take a hard line on Hamas. “I think Israel has the right to do everything it can to get those hostages back safe and sound,” he said.

Ferrari asked the Labour leader if Israel’s right to defense extends to cutting off power and water to the Gaza Strip. “I think Israel has that right,” Starmer said.

“Obviously, everything has to be done within international law,” he added hastily. “But I don’t want to step away from core principles.”

Of course, the ‘core principles’ in question are Israel’s absolute right to do anything it wants to the Palestinians in response to the terrible atrocities of October 7.  This clip soon went viral, provoking outrage from anyone who cares about human rights.

Skip forward to today, even some of the worst shadow cabinet members are worried that Starmer’s position appears “callous” to Muslim voters. The British Muslim vote is concentrated in urban areas, where many of these MPs rely on their faithful support.

Starmer has outdone himself this time. He has managed to enrage many Labour voters, trigger a rebellion among MPs and divide the shadow cabinet. Finally, the Labour leader’s disregard for minority voters has come back to bite him.

It’s a refreshing change from the days when Jeremy Corbyn was smeared as an anti-Semite for his support for Palestinian rights. But this is about much more than throw-away remarks in an interview. It’s about the kind of party Labour should be.

Headbangers for Labour

What we’ve seen since the LBC interview is around 30 resignations from Labour councilors across the country, while more than 250 Labour councilors have challenged Starmer to change his position. This was just the start.

A pro-Palestine demonstration was held outside Labour HQ with chants like “Keir Starmer, you can’t hide! You support war crimes!” But even inside Labour HQ there is reportedly discontent over Labour policy on the Gaza war.

Only real headbangers like NEC member Luke Akehurst, nicknamed ‘Luke the Nuke’ by left-wing activists, want total support for Israel’s war on the Palestinians, but they don’t have total support.

Around 60 Labour MPs have called for a ceasefire so far. They have been joined by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. Even the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, a member of the secretive British-American Project, has joined the chorus.

More than a dozen Labour frontbenchers are defying Starmer by supporting a ceasefire. It’s the first time Starmer has faced a major rebellion within Parliament. There could be more resignations if Starmer doesn’t change his position as Israel pummels Gaza.

One craven shadow minister Nicholas Thomas-Symonds has said a full ceasefire will get in the way of Israel defending itself. He seems to think this position is compatible with allowing aid to flow into the Gaza Strip. This isn’t even stupidity.

Just as former Blair adviser John McTernan said a ceasefire would mean Israel’s “surrender” to Hamas, but there should be a “humanitarian corridor” to help limit civilian casualties. This is a fantasy war zone, where carpet bombing can avoid killing women and children.

The unfortunate truth is that the Labour right in its support of pro-US imperialism and Israeli expansionism has a stronger claim on the party than the radical anti-war left. Labour has long been a party of the British state despite its institutional and organic ties to trade unionism.

The Labour Party has a conflict built into it between those who favor success on capitalist terms and those who favor radical change. As the late, great Tony Benn once put it: “The Labour Party has never been a socialist party, but it’s always had socialists in it.”

Nevertheless, the slew of Starmer loyalists backing uncritical support for Israel has started to dwindle. Journalist Paul Mason, who has sacrificed much of his dignity for Starmer, has called for the party to back a full ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Labour MP Andy McDonald has been suspended for giving a “deeply offensive” speech, which included the phrase “between the river to the sea”. This phrase has become taboo in British newspapers.

In his speech, McDonald said: “We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.” You can see why Starmer’s goons went after McDonald.

Purges are no substitute for foreign policy though. Labour doesn’t have much of a foreign policy, except groveling before the United States and its allies. Even if this means supporting ethnic cleansing, the Starmerites think the price is worth it to get into office.

This is a brief opening for the ‘stay and fight’ crowd to show they can do more than just stay. It’s about time they showed they can fight for party democracy and force the Labour leadership to yield on Gaza.

Haunted by Blairism

Some journalists have drawn parallels with Tony Blair’s refusal to call for a ceasefire during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Blair’s support for Israel’s war machine helped create an opening for Gordon Brown’s acolytes to move against him.

The situation in Labour is quite different today. This crisis is not taking place in the last days of Blairism-Brownism after more than a decade in power. Starmer faces no rival having crushed the left and reconsolidated the centre ground in the party.

This is a political scandal that reaches into the ranks of the bureaucracy and Team Starmer itself. The reasons why his comments on Israel have been so divisive within the party machine are strictly electoral, not moral.

During the 2020 Labour leadership election, Starmer pledged to defend human rights and promote internationalism. This is why many Corbyn supporters ended up voting for Starmer. They thought he would deliver a softer, more electable Corbynism.

However, Starmer’s mandate was simply to win at any cost. He had already aligned himself with the right-wing elements of the party bureaucracy, which wanted to smash the left.

As soon as he won Starmer returned to the old Blairite strategy of triangulation. He set out to win over Tory voters by sacrificing every commitment he made to the membership. Worse still, Starmer has waged war on the left and purged Jeremy Corbyn himself.

The Starmer plan is to outflank the Conservative government, steal their voters, lure away their donors and fill their shoes in high office. Meanwhile, the traditional Labour vote of working-class people are being taken for granted.

People often talk about the base as if it’s the only people voting Labour for decades are white workers. Not at all. The Labour heartlands include London, where Afro-Caribbean and South Asian voters have long supported the party. But the Muslim vote is not Sir Keir’s priority.

The double-figure poll leads could narrow over the next several months and many Muslims may choose to stay at home in the 2024 general election. This combination could shrink Labour’s gains and even cost it some seats.

A Labour victory in 2024 still looks very likely, even if the Conservative Party recovers some of its losses in the campaign. The election is still Labour’s to lose, but it may take a ‘miracle’ for Sunak to rebuild his party’s fortunes.

Team Starmer is bound to be complacent with its huge poll lead over the Tories. However, the Labour Party will eventually face a reckoning for a strategy of triangulating human life for political capital. Just as New Labour did in 2010.

Josh White is the author of Goodbye United Kingdom: Descent into Chaos (2015-2022).