Brave Labour MPs have voted with their conscience. Where is Keir Starmer’s?

November 16, 2023
DURHAM, ENGLAND – JULY 11: Guardian columnist and activist Owen Jones speaks to the crowds during the annual Durham Miners Gala on July 11, 2015 in Durham, England. This is the 131st gala which brings together the communal values, culture and mining heritage of the north east of England. Thousands of people attend the event to listen to the brass bands, socialise and show their allegiance to the banners from the former colliery villages throughout the north. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Brave Labour MPs have voted with their conscience. Where is Keir Starmer’s?

  • Owen Jones

This was a crucial moment in Labour’s history. With one in every 200 Palestinians in Gaza now estimated to have been killed in this five-week military onslaught, a significant chunk of Labour’s parliamentary party have been privately agonising. And tonight, that agonising became a very concrete problem for Keir Starmer: 56 of his MPs defied the whip in order to back an SNP amendment calling for a ceasefire. That included eight frontbenchers, who have either resigned or been sacked.

Why did they do it? They know that the UN secretary general, António Guterres, has condemned the “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people, that a Palestinian child is being killed every 10 minutes, that entire generations of families have been wiped out. Like anyone seriously engaging with the past weeks’ events, they know Israel’s government is hardly being subtle: that this weekend, a minister claimed Israel was instituting a new Nakba, the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948; that the defence minister justified a total siege on the grounds Israel was fighting “human animals”.

It is important to state all this, because many Labour MPs know the leadership line – to back Israel’s offensive with only occasional caveats that international law must be respected, while calling for nothing more substantial than a “humanitarian pause” – is a nonsense. To assuage their own guilty consciences, those who support him are quick to suggest that Starmer’s positioning is irrelevant to what happens, even though Labour’s refusal to push the government in turn helps Rishi Sunak to continue offering Israel carte blanche.

If Labour marshalled public opinion – which, according to polling, overwhelmingly backs a ceasefire – the crisis-stricken Tories would be under serious pressure to change course. Ireland and Spain already back a cessation of Israel’s onslaught, but Britain would be the most influential western country to do so. Many Labour MPs believe that the so-called humanitarian pauses would simply be an exercise of letting aid in, then continuing the bombing of those who receive the aid. They have read the briefings of aid agencies which deride what is, in fact, a face-saving exercise by western governments fearful of growing public backlash.

Some, too, fear the political wrath of British Muslims – 4 million in total – who have long been treated by Labour as voting fodder, but many of whom are both enraged and grief-stricken by this mass slaughter. It is this alone which has provoked unease among Starmer’s advisers. But the truth is public rage goes beyond that. Starmer risks becoming a hate figure among large sections of Labour’s natural voting coalition. That happened to Tony Blair, but only after he had been prime minister for many years. It should not be forgotten that a proximate cause of Blair’s own downfall was refusing to back a ceasefire when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006.

For the eight frontbenchers who resigned, the moral obscenity was too great, as was the potential political cost. The former shadow minister Yasmin Qureshi quoted UN warnings of Gaza becoming a “graveyard for children”; while Naz Shah resigned warning of a humanitarian catastrophe, rightly declaring “history judges us, and there are moments like this when we have to take a position”. The big surprise was Jess Phillips, a standard-bearer for the party’s right – many on the left understandably point out that Labour lost her constituency after the Iraq war, and she may fear the same once again. But at a time of such human catastrophe – with life or death on a mass scale in contention – any recruit to the cause is surely welcome, whatever the reason, and indeed it underlines that pressure from below works.

For Starmer himself, this is a moment of moral outrage which will not be forgotten. Labour’s refusal to demand a key western ally cease a murderous rampage will go down in the party’s history. Starmer will surely win the next election, thanks to the Tories’ implosion. But more than any other moment, this saga ensures there will be little enthusiasm for his premiership from the outset – and in an age of permanent crisis, that will store up much trouble to come.

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