MARSTON MORETAINE, BEDFORDSHIRE – OCTOBER 20: Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to media after congratulating newly elected Labour MP for Mid Bedfordshire Alistair Strathern on October 20, 2023 in Marston Moretaine, Bedfordshire. Labour candidate Alistair Strathern overturns Tory majority to win the seat vacated by former Conservative culture secretary Nadine Dorries. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
OPPOSITION leader Keir Starmer is facing increasing pressure over his stance on the Israel-Hamas war, testing the leadership mettle of the favourite to become Britain’s next prime minister.
The 61-year-old is battling to dampen tensions within Labour’s ranks over remarks he made about the Israeli response to Hamas’s October 7 attack and his ongoing refusal to call for a ceasefire in the conflict.
The war has reignited old divisions in the centre-left party, which Starmer had been credited with unifying, as it bids to return to power in a general election expected next year.
Labour has led the ruling Tories by double-digit margins for over a year in most opinion polls.
“This is partly so important because Labour looks as if it might actually win the next election,” political scientist Tony Travers said of the row.
“It’s a good example of the kind of test that will come after you week after week when you’re head of government.”
Starmer has shifted Labour back to the political centre ground since succeeding far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, who presided over a landslide defeat to the Conservatives in 2019.
He has received praise for rooting out anti-Semitism which took hold within the party under Corbyn.
Starmer received a standing ovation at Labour’s annual conference this month when he condemned the attack in Israel by Hamas gunmen that killed more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians.
A moment’s silence at the gathering for the victims was also impeccably observed.
The scenes contrasted heavily with the 2018 conference during Corbyn’s reign, when delegates waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans. Years earlier, Corbyn referred to Hamas as “friends” — a term he later admitted regret for using.
Cracks in Labour’s united front started to show after Starmer gave an October 11 radio interview in which he suggested Israel had the “right” to cut off water and energy to Gaza.
Within days he sought to clarify that he had meant the country had a right to self-defence. The clip had already gone viral, though, and has proved increasingly problematic.
More than a dozen locally elected Labour officials, known as councillors, quickly quit over the comments. They represented a tiny fraction of the more than 6,000 the party has nationwide.
But the displeasure has grown and this week some 150 Muslim Labour councillors called on Starmer to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, broke ranks this week, when he told the BBC there was “no justification for the withholding of essential supplies” from civilians in Gaza.
Starmer, a former chief state prosecutor, spent time Wednesday (25) with more than a dozen Muslim Labour MPs in a bid to soothe tensions.
More than 30 Labour lawmakers in Britain’s parliament have also signed a motion calling for a ceasefire.
Starmer has not backed the initiative, instead choosing to support prime minister Rishi Sunak’s call this week for “pauses” in the war to allow more aid into Gaza.
Observers say the Labour leader is right to be unequivocal about Hamas, while supporters argue he is acting like a prime minister.
“It has of course reinforced the point that this is no longer Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party,” said Anand Menon, a politics professor at Kings College London.
“There’s clearly a vulnerability, both in terms of party divisions, and potentially Muslim votes. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near there yet, and for the moment he’s handling it pretty well.”
Israel has retaliated with heavy bombing that Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said has killed more than 6,500 people. The toll is expected to rise if tens of thousands of Israeli troops massed near Gaza move in.
Any escalation could widen the cracks within Labour, with British media reporting that Labour is concerned that several shadow cabinet members might resign.
MPs who represent areas with large Muslim communities are said to be most concerned by Starmer’s stance, ahead of an election that must be held by January 2025.
Polling by Survation in 2021 found 72 percent of Britain’s roughly four million Muslims most identified with the Labour.
Travers, of the London School of Economics, said they are not going start voting Conservative. But he warned that apathy in marginal seats could cost Labour as it tries to overturn the Tories’ massive majority.
“The risk for Starmer is that a proportion of this vote might stay at home. That would have an effect in some places,” he said.