Five years ago, the Labour Party conference was a sea of Palestinian flags as delegates voted overwhelmingly to support suspending the sale of arms to Israel, in solidarity with the people of Palestine. Days before this year’s conference, the Labour Party removed the words ‘end apartheid’ from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s conference fringe listing. “This is not the position of the Labour Party,” explained a spokesperson – omitting that this stance put Labour out of step with Amnesty International, Harvard University and a former head of Mossad. The days when an anti-war activist led the party felt like a long time ago.
This absurd act of control freakery is vital context when surveying how the Labour leadership has responded to Israel’s siege of Gaza. The censorship of PSC is an important reminder that Keir Starmer’s failure to stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine did not begin on LBC with Nick Ferrari.
Since his election in 2020, given ample opportunity to highlight the oppression of the Palestinian people, the Labour leader has instead underlined the extent to which ‘the Labour Party has changed’. Keir Starmer’s primary concern has not been to uphold international law but to view the issue through the prism of the Labour Party as a means of proving that he is not Jeremy Corbyn. From ‘both-siding’ Israeli aggression at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 2021 to refusing to call Israel an apartheid state last year, humanity has long been absent from Starmer’s statements as he uses the issue as a tool to deride his Party’s left flank.
The response of the Labour leadership over the last few weeks should be viewed as an extension of this approach. However, when the UN warns of genocide, such triangulation does not wash and, with the world’s eyes locked on the Middle East, the Labour leadership’s politicking has been exposed.
First, there was Starmer’s offer of support for collective punishment. Emily Thornberry – a trained lawyer like Starmer – then appeared on Newsnight to echo her leader’s comments. David Lammy told Laura Kunesburg that “war is ugly” and “very, very sadly, people die”. Lisa Nandy, asked three times on BBC News whether Israel was committing war crimes, could not answer. In their briefing to MPs, the Shadow Foreign Office advised that, if asked ‘what’s Labour’s position on reports that Israel has been using white phosphorus?’, representatives should answer with ‘We support Israel’s right to defend itself.’
Meanwhile, Labour’s General Secretary wrote to local Labour Parties advising them not to take their banners to Palestine solidarity demonstrations. Elected members were asked not to turn up at all. Constituency Labour Parties in Scotland received notification that any motions on the siege of Gaza would be considered out of order. The clearest evidence that we’ve gone through the looking glass, however, came when Andy McDonald MP was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party for saying that “we won’t rest until we have justice, until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty.”
At every turn, however, Starmer has been out of step with not only his Party membership but the British public. By October 13th, Israel had already dropped more bombs on Gaza than the US did in the first year of their 2001 Afghan campaign. 8,000 Palestinians – half of them children – have been slaughtered. The Pope, the UN, Anas Sarwar, Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan, 300 Labour councillors and 13 frontbench MPs have called for an immediate ceasefire – as supported by more than 70% of the British public. The Labour leadership, however, cannot bring itself to call for an end to the bombing. Keir Starmer reportedly told one Labour MP that the party will not endorse such a position until the US does. After Starmer’s team spent the summer meeting their opposite numbers in the US Democrats, perhaps this is no surprise.
There was an all too brief hope that under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a former chair of the Stop The War coalition, the Labour Party would break with its historic support for British imperialism. To their credit, both Momentum and the Campaign For Socialism, the institutional legacy of the Corbyn period, have published strong statements acknowledging that this violence is rooted in Israel’s settler-colonial occupation. It is now abundantly clear however that after a quick hiatus, the Labour leadership is ready to serve imperialism once more. Starmer has signalled he is prepared to go to war with his own Party in order to tuck in behind the UK Government which has, in turn, tucked in behind the United States.
On Saturday the 28th of October, Gaza endured the heaviest Israeli bombardment yet as Israel’s Defence minister claimed their war had “entered a new stage”. Every shelled building becomes a graveyard as the Israeli government turns Gaza into ‘a city of tents’. Yet the most the Labour leadership can muster is a call for ‘humanitarian pauses’ and ‘international aid’. It hardly needs to be said that such calls for aid ring hollow if not accompanied by a call to cease fire.
The leadership’s response is demonstrative of something more than inhumanity, however. For Nesrine Malik, it proves how “out of touch with, and contemptuous of, its grassroots” Keir Starmer’s Labour is. It’s true that Starmer has insulated himself from accountability by gradually centralising power in the hands of his allies since 2020. It is his closest, unelected advisors who now set the Labour Party’s direction, informed not with politics, but focus groups. However, on this occasion, the ‘weathervane’ allegation does not stand up to reality. Given ample opportunity to swing behind the popular position of a ceasefire, the Labour leadership has doubled down.
Keir Starmer’s position then is much more a product of his anti-politics, of his mission to abandon social democracy in an effort to appease the British ruling class. The Labour leader’s tenure has already seen a determined attempt to dismantle what remains of the traditional mass party model, supplant the influence of trade unions with private finance and bend the knee to capital while alienating swathes of Labour’s traditional base. Domestically, class politics has been swapped for transitory clientelism. A material embrace of Atlanticism is the natural next step for the Starmer project – one to which the Labour leadership has already alluded in its ‘unshakable commitment to NATO’. Labour’s response to the collective punishment of the people of Palestine signals to the United States that Britain’s ‘government in waiting’ is more than content to take its lines from the world’s policeman.
At the UN Security Council in mid-October, the UK abstained on a resolution brought by Brazil calling not for a ceasefire, but for “humanitarian pauses” in the bombing. While the Labour leadership has now adopted this position in its public communication, there has been no criticism of the UK Government’s failure to back the resolution. It can be seen that, given the opposition of the United States to the same resolution, Starmer wishes not to upset the applecart even on the positions he publicly advocates.
Yesterday, Keir Starmer reaffirmed his opposition to a ceasefire during a speech at Chatham House. To call for an end to the bombing, argued the Labour leader, would embolden Hamas. Hours later, Israel bombed the Jabalia refugee camp and killed more than 50 people.
The public have seen through Keir Starmer’s attempts to play politics while Gaza is reduced to rubble. Hundreds of thousands have mobilised for the very positions he will not support. For now, with upwards of 300 Palestinians murdered every day and a ground invasion imminent, the immediate priority of the anti-war movement must be to stop the bombing. From inside and outside of the Labour Party, this means doing absolutely everything to pressure Starmer and, in turn, the UK Government to work for an immediate ceasefire.