Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Starmer’s Position On Gaza Is Untenable

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There are moments amid fast-moving events when a demand which would have been seen as laughable a few weeks ago suddenly moves to centre stage. 

At the beginning of October, as the Labour Party gathered in conference in Liverpool a day after the Hamas attack on Southern Israel, the idea that we would demand anything of Sir Keir Starmer would have met with scorn. 

Today, however, the demand Starmer changes from his unconditional support for Israel’s assault on Gaza to calling for an immediate ceasefire assumes central importance. 

Why, you might ask? Even if he was to back such a call, it would not halt Israel’s murderous bombardment and its growing ground attack. True. But it would affect the situation. In the UK the consensus between Sunak and Starmer has meant the former is emboldened in his support for Israel. That matters. Britain remains a power and is a staunch ally of both Israel and the USA. If the man who is seen as the Prime Minister in waiting were to join the growing call for a ceasefire that would breach the transatlantic united front. 

In Europe, only Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, and the caretaker Spanish government, a coalition of the Socialists and Sumar on their left, have called for a ceasefire. If Starmer was to do so it would signal that cross-Europe support for the Israeli strategy was crumbling. In Germany, it might help embolden opposition to the Social Democrat-led coalition which is 100 percent behind Israel. If Starmer, under pressure as he is, were to do so it would also be seen as an important victory for the hundreds of thousands who have marched in defence of the Palestinians across Britain. On the half-million-strong march in London, the loathing of Starmer was starkly obvious. 

“We have been informed by the general secretary and the Scottish general secretary that any motions relating to the situation in Israel and Gaza are out of order for all CLPs.” 

The nine said they were being “forced to shut down discussion”, and they refused to be “part of a party machinery which stifles democracy”. 

Six members of the Edinburgh Northern and Leith Executive Committee also stood down for the same reason. 

Today, Starmer faces the biggest crisis of his leadership. Having given unconditional support for Israel, including cutting off power and water to Gaza, he tried to then to deny he had said this, but his statement saying just that had already gone viral on social media. 

He has thus far ruled out calling for a ceasefire. Instead, he supports “humanitarian pauses” to allow sufficient aid into Gaza while not preventing the ongoing, indiscriminate, bombing campaign over Gaza.

He has explained his position as flowing from his desire for the US to take the first step. What that step is he hasn’t said. It has sounded alarm bells that Starmer will follow Tony Blair in his Atlanticism, forgetting the damage inflicted following the former Prime Minister’s slavish support for the American-led invasion of Iraq. 

Approaching 100 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion calling for a ceasefire. Two scores are Labour MPs defying an instruction from Starmer not to break ranks with him. Pressure mounted on Friday when Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar; London Mayor, Sadiq Khan; and Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, all called for a ceasefire in a clearly co-ordinated move. The first two are extremely cautious about such moves but clearly, their reading of public opinion decided for them. 

At a meeting of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority on Friday a statement was issued signed by Burnham, his deputy Kate Green and the leaders of Greater Manchester’s 10 councils stating

“Given the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza, the mayor, deputy mayor and the 10 leaders of Greater Manchester join the growing international calls for a ceasefire by all sides and for the hostages to be released unharmed.” 

On the same day, 250 Muslim councillors signed a statement from the Muslim Labour Network calling for a ceasefire. Former Labour Mayor of Luton, Waheed Akbar, publicly resigned from the party, ending 31 years of membership, stating Starmer’s position on Palestine was “the end of the tether for me.” He joins over 30 councillors who have quit the party for similar reasons, including nine in Oxford causing Labour to lose control of the city council. 

On Saturday a number of Labour MPs spoke at the half-a-million-strong demonstration in London in support of Palestine, including Richard Burgon, Zarah Sultana, Bell Ribiero-Addy and Apsana Begum. Starmer might dismiss those as the usual suspects but not so Khan, Sarwar and Burnham – and criticism is now coming from his front bench. 

Shadow Minister for Crime Reduction, Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, tweeted: “I continue to call for a ceasefire. We cannot be silent.” Her front bench colleague, Paula Barker, Shadow Minister for Devolution and MP for Liverpool Wavertree, said she “fully supports” the calls of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, for an immediate ceasefire, the release of hostages and unfettered humanitarian access to Gaza. 

Shadow Veterans Minister Rachel Hopkins, shadow local government minister Sarah Owen, shadow domestic violence minister Jess Phillips, and Labour whip Kim Leadbeater retweeted calls for a ceasefire on X/Twitter. 

In all 13 frontbenchers have joined the call for a ceasefire. A Labour backbencher told The Independent: “A wide group are really, really unhappy. I would say around 100 MPs [want a ceasefire]. The numbers are moving away from him [Sir Keir] quite rapidly. So I can’t see how the position will hold, especially if there’s a wider escalation in the conflict.” 

Four Shadow Ministers are considering resigning over the matter. If just one did it would explode the debate in the party. 

Does it matter what position Starmer takes? Breaking the consensus he has so far maintained with Sunak would feed into the already overwhelming public support for a ceasefire. In Germany and France, the governments have tried to physically drive pro-Palestinian protesters off the streets. If Starmer, seen by most as the UK Prime Minister in waiting, was forced to call for a ceasefire, that would break a cross-European consensus and encourage even greater solidarity actions. 

We should not just watch and applaud Starmer’s critics. It is the pressure of the monster demonstrations in defence of Gaza which has created the situation. Many Labour MPs fear losing the Muslim vote, which until now taken for granted. They understand that if 76 per cent of the British population supports a ceasefire in Gaza, Starmer’s position is not tenable. It will reinforce the belief that elite rulers are completely out of step with popular opinion. 

Those of us who are in unions affiliated with Labour should be moving motions demanding Starmer backs a ceasefire. In Haringey, a mass lobby of David Lammy MP is planned for this Saturday. That should be repeated across England and Wales. 

Of course, Starmer knows he can count on people in England voting for him because they are desperate to get the Tories out and there is no alternative but Labour. In Scotland, the row over Palestine has taken the shine off Labour’s recent by-election win in Rutherglen. Yousaf and the SNP were in trouble but he has won wide approval both for his support for a ceasefire and the tragic position of his in-laws, trapped in Gaza. SNP-elected members were present from early on in the protests. 

Let’s recall the shift from support for devolution to support for independence that took place under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in response to their full-blooded neo-liberalism and the disaster of the Iraq war. A Starmer government could well lead to a similar shift. 

In Scotland, there is something else we should do. The call from Humza Yousaf and SNP MSPs and MPs for an immediate ceasefire should translate into SNP branches, up and down the country, mobilising for protests against the developing invasion of Gaza, bringing their banners and members onto the streets. 

That would help reinvigorate the independence movement and remind everyone that one key reason for the Yes vote in 2014 was to escape a UK state addicted to war and to an alliance with the United States in whatever adventures they unleash. 

If we are to up the pressure on Starmer – we are not talking about weeks or months but days. We can win this and if we do it will impact the whole situation. 

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