The Labour Party’s stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict has once again become a contentious issue, causing divisions within the party. Following the recent conflict triggered by Hamas’ attacks on Israel, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer initially aligned himself closely with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, condemning Hamas as terrorists and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense. Both leaders also called for humanitarian aid to assist the residents of Gaza affected by the conflict.
However, as Israel’s military campaign in Gaza escalated, Starmer has faced mounting pressure from within his party to adopt a more forceful stance and demand an immediate ceasefire. This shift in position has generated internal strife rarely seen during his tenure as leader.
The Israel-Palestine conflict holds the potential to reopen longstanding divisions within the Labour Party. Starmer has dedicated considerable effort to mending relations with the Jewish community and addressing accusations of anti-Semitism that plagued the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Nonetheless, Labour also traditionally garners support from British Muslims and those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, who seek a more assertive pro-Palestinian position from the party.
In navigating this complex terrain, Starmer has drawn criticism from various quarters within his party. Some Labour MPs, speaking anonymously, believe he mishandled the situation, particularly due to his comments on LBC radio, where he appeared to suggest that Israel had the right to cut off water and electricity to Gaza. Although he later clarified his stance, the controversy has persisted and overshadowed diplomatic efforts.
Activists and Labour supporters are intensively lobbying their MPs to push for a stronger stance against Israel, particularly those representing constituencies with significant Muslim populations. This pressure has put MPs in a challenging position, with some receiving a flood of emails and phone calls from concerned constituents.
Furthermore, more than 20 British Muslim local councillors have left the Labour Party in protest, while prominent figures like West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin and shadow minister Yasmin Qureshi have deviated from the official party line by advocating for a ceasefire.
The fear among some MPs is that voters with strong pro-Palestinian sympathies might turn away from Labour in future elections, potentially supporting smaller parties or abstaining from voting altogether.
Despite the growing internal discontent, there is no expectation of a significant shift in Labour’s stance in the immediate future. Following discussions with Labour’s Muslim MPs and peers, Starmer called for increased aid to Gaza and supported the idea of “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting, aligning with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s proposal.
This ongoing crisis poses one of the most significant challenges to Keir Starmer’s leadership, as he strives to maintain party unity in the lead-up to the 2024 election, which Labour is expected to win. While some allies commend his resistance to internal pressure and ability to avert a full-scale rebellion, the damage to his standing among critics appears unlikely to dissipate soon.
In the words of one left-leaning Labour aide, “Anyone in the Labour leadership who thinks this will calm down should spend less time kidding themselves and more time dealing with the deep anger throughout the party.” The Israel-Palestine issue remains a highly sensitive and divisive topic, testing the leadership of the Labour Party and prompting passionate debate among its members.