BY BENJI SACHS
For a party 20 points ahead in the polls it isn’t a great look. Out of just 198 Labour MPs some 56 rebelled against the party line, that number containing 10 frontbenchers, including the (now-former) Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence, Jess Phillips.
This great issue that divides the Labour party is that of whether there should be a ceasefire in the current conflict between Hamas (a Palestinian terror group which controls the Gaza strip) and Israel. The SNP had proposed an amendment to the King's Speech calling for a ceasefire - the leadership of the Labour party rejected this, and instead advanced a motion for a ‘humanitarian pause,’ but not a complete and immediate cessation of fighting.
This is unfortunately a debate that will have little relevance or impact. For one Hamas and Israel seem set on a path of total war. A minister in the governing Israeli coalition, which includes nationalist and extremist elements, has stated that the ‘nuking’ of the Gaza Strip was one possibility. Though obviously ridiculous, it reflects the palpable anger in Israel. Following the murder of some 1200 people on October the 7th and kidnapping of more than 200 Israeli’s, Israel is unlikely to stop any military action. This is especially unlikely before the return of any of the hostages, and Israel seems in the meantime committed to uprooting Hamas from the Gaza strip.
In a similar vein Hamas remains ideologically committed to the destruction of Israel - as it clearly illustrated on the 7th of October. They would have been well aware of what the Israeli response would be after such an attack, and with the death of some 16,000 individuals in Gaza, many of them civilian women and children, it seems unlikely Hamas will throw in the towel. At the time of writing there is a truce to allow for the exchange of some hostages, but this does not constitute a full ceasefire and fighting will likely resume after its end.
So why then does this issue tear the Labour party apart? On the one hand Keir Starmer and the centre of the Labour party have towed a careful ‘moderate’ stance. Though they have been critical of Israel and called for humanitarian pauses and increased aid to Gaza, they have stood steadfastly by the right of the Israelis to ‘self-defence.’ This does make sense for Starmer. It’s pretty clear he’s taken a page from the Tony Blair Electoral-Handbook; move to the centre, play the moderate, win the election. There is another element, however, to this angle. Under his predecessor, Corbyn, the Labour party was plagued by accusations of Anti-Semitism, even being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It also didn’t help matters that Corbyn stood on a stage with a Hamas official, and even refused to describe them as a terror group when pressed. Starmer has been keen to smooth over relations with the British Jewish Community, and towing a pro-Israeli stance certainly helps this aim.
On the other hand, you have the Left of the Labour party. There is a long humanitarian tradition in the Labour party - think about the large number of Labour MPs who opposed the war in Iraq, or iconic figures such as Tony Benn. For them the huge number of Palestinian civilians killed as collateral is morally unacceptable, and regular controversies about Israeli military actions such as near hospitals, has only worsened this outrage. The issue also has another dimension, many Labour MPs represent constituencies with a large Muslim population, and in 2019 some 14 Muslim Labour MPs were elected. This has the potential to be a problem for Starmer, in fact an independent councillor (formerly Labour, who had resigned over the party’s stance) beat Labour in a council by-election in Newham recently.
So is Labour now doomed? Is the party going to split? Is Rishi Sunak going to be anointed God-emperor and reign for a thousand years, whilst Starmer is locked away in the Tower of London? The issue certainly gets to the heart of the divide in Labour, perhaps it has cost them some votes at the next election. It also potentially gives us a taster of what Labour in government will be like (Hint: It will not be the smooth ride that the early Blair years were).
But the bottom-line is that Starmer remains in a strong position and is not going anywhere anytime soon, commanding a huge poll lead against a government seemingly dedicated to shooting itself (and the country) in the foot as much as possible. The truth is that in 2024 people will probably be voting more on the economy and public services than any foreign war, and on those issues Labour is certainly in the lead. The mood is undeniably in favour of change - and Labour seems to be the only real ‘change’ option. We would also do well to remember that the Left of the party has mostly been cowed. This recent vote gave Starmer another opportunity to purge the Left of the party from his frontbench. They are the lucky ones, unlike Corbyn they at least get to stay in the party.
The conflict in Gaza has provoked a huge and emotional reaction in many communities in the UK, which is more than understandable. But despite this it hasn’t changed the fundamental reality of UK politics at the moment, that is Keir Starmer chugging his way to No.10 Downing street. Perhaps what this affair has taught us most importantly, was that he has the ruthlessness to make it there.
Photo by Labour Party