Labour's Gaza policy: can Starmer keep party together?

There is growing backbench dissent over the party's position on the Israel-Hamas war

Keir Starmer
Starmer is thought to be mindful of the views of Jewish voters and MPs
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Labour leader Keir Starmer has met with Muslim MPs and peers amid growing discontent over the party's stance on the Israel-Hamas war.

Starmer has faced criticism since appearing to say in an LBC interview that Israel had the "right" to cut off water and energy to Gaza, although he later said he meant only that the country had a right to self-defence. 

The Labour leader has faced further criticism after he visited a Welsh mosque and posted on X he had "repeated our calls for all hostages to be released, more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, for the water and power to be switched back on, and a renewed focus on the two-state solution".   

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The South Wales Islamic Centre expressed "dismay" at the statement and said Starmer had "gravely misrepresented our congregants and the nature of the visit".

'Labour can ill afford to ignore its Muslim voters'

Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner met with Muslim MPs as "considerable dissent" continues to foment on the Labour backbenches over Starmer's language on the Israel-Hamas war, said Politico's London Playbook. More than 150 Muslim Labour councillors have written to him urging the party leadership to call for an immediate ceasefire in the region, while a further 19 have quit the party over the issue.

One shadow minister told Playbook that it's an issue that has "united MPs on the left, right and centre of the party", adding that party leadership had failed to recognise that the party was "haemorrhaging Muslim votes massively, enough to lose seats if there was an election tomorrow."

Labour can "ill afford to ignore its Muslim voters," said David Hearst in the Middle East Eye. Some 24 Westminster seats and 11 councils "depend on the Muslim vote" including Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Leicester, Luton and Oldham. "This is not a factional left-right issue in the party" but "an electoral problem for Labour".

The issue is even "eliciting quiet disagreement from people you'd usually expect to back Starmer to the hilt", one senior Labour figure told the New Statesman, noting that moderate MPs such as Jess Phillips had challenged Rishi Sunak to condemn Israel should it breach international law.

'Dire implications for Britain's security'

It is "painfully ironic" that the "issue upon which Jeremy Corbyn was most controversial – Israel – turns out to be the one thing over which the Labour Party is willing to challenge Starmer's centrist project", wrote Tim Stanley in The Telegraph.

But Starmer is "thought to be mindful of the views of Jewish voters and MPs" who support Labour's position, despite wanting stronger criticism of the Metropolitan Police's slow response to anti-Semitic incidents in London this week. Allies therefore "doubt that Starmer will shift position and call for a temporary ceasefire while Hamas still holds hostages, some of whom are British citizens", said the New Statesman.

Nevertheless, "the splits in Labour are not going away", and it is "easy to envision a cacophony of anti-Israel voices growing to a screeching crescendo" under a future Starmer government, said former Labour MP Tom Harris in the Daily Mail.

"If large numbers of Labour backbenchers are implacably opposed to the actions of Israel, if every effort made by the Israeli Defence Forces to protect its citizens is condemned by government MPs as 'war crimes', how could a Labour foreign secretary do his or her job?" asked Harris. "These splits go beyond mere policy. They could have dire implications for Britain's security and our place in the world."

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