UK: Labour’s Tightrope On The Israel-Hamas War – Analysis


By Shairee Malhotra

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed all but certain that Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s leader, would become the United Kingdom’s next Prime Minister through general elections scheduled for early 2025. With Labour’s comfortable 18-point lead in the polls over the ruling Tories, Starmer seemed poised to take over after 13 years of conservative rule. But a conflict, thousands of miles away from the island, is posing a serious threat to Starmer’s leadership and electoral prospects.

The deadly Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel on 7 October that killed over 1,400 Israelis, followed by Israel’s retaliatory operation in Gaza that has killed at least 12,000 civilians, have caused serious divisions globally including within Britain’s Labour Party. 

Pause or ceasefire? 

Starmer’s unequivocal support of Israel’s right to self-defence and his refusal to call for a ceasefire has caused widespread discontent within the Labour Party. Like incumbent Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden, Starmer has called for humanitarian pauses in the fighting that would allow much-needed aid to flow into Gaza and ease the suffering of civilians. 

However, Starmer’s assertions that a ceasefire would essentially freeze the conflict and allow Hamas to retain its capabilities of executing further attacks on Israel had few takers in the Party. According to a BBCreport, at least 50 Labour MPs and 250 councillors backed an immediate ceasefire, including prominent Labour members such as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burham. Others such as Shadow Minister Imran Hussain have stepped down from their roles over the party’s stance. 

The situation came to a head during a motion put forth by the Scottish National Party (SNP) to back a ceasefire, where 10 frontbenchers who voted for the motion were forced to quit the Labour Party. Even though the resolution was defeated by 125 votes to 293, it was strongly supported by members of the Labour Party, where 56 out of 198 voted in favour of the motion and against the Party and Starmer’s official stance, lamenting that the leadership had “lost its moral compass”. 

The problem is not only that Starmer’s position differs from several members of his party, but that his position is considered a compromise on Labour’s core principles that stand against wars and imperialism, and are rooted in promoting progressive causes of justice and human rights including a free state for the Palestinians. The approach of Starmer, himself a human rights lawyer, marks a stark departure from the leftist Jeremy Corbyn who, often levelled with accusations of antisemitism, headed Labour until its abysmal performance in the 2019 elections. 

The stakes are higher for Labour than the Tories. Unlike the Tories, Labour’s electoral support baseconsists of the Muslim population and the liberal left middle class, which are critical to Labour’s success. With marches across London comprising as many as 300,000 protestors demanding a ceasefire, there is evidence that support is already thinning. A recent poll illustrates that 64 percent of Muslims would vote for Labour, less than the 71 percent who did so in 2019. As the death toll continues to mount, Starmer finds himself in a conundrum where the opposition rather than those in office are more answerable, given that the position of the UK’s governing right-wing Conservative party, for once united on an issue, is expected.

A leaf out of Blairite labour? 

The irony is that while infighting within Labour continued over calls for a ceasefire, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was brokered by Qatar to allow for essentials to reach Gaza as well as the two-way release of hostages and prisoners. 

Experts such as Richard Haass of the Council of Foreign Relations consider Israel’s stated aim of eliminating Hamas an impossible feat, making it difficult for governments to continue to support allegedly impossible goals accompanied by immense collateral damage. Given the exceeding human cost of the conflict and escalation of Israeli military action in Gaza, in hindsight, opposing a ceasefire was probably an untenable position in the first place and governments adopting this line were likely to come under pressure to alter policy. 

Despite a period of at least a year from now until the next British general election, the emotiveness of the Israel-Palestine issue is such that Starmer’s position today could impact Labour’s electoral outcomes in 2025. As the resignations pile up amidst even calls for Starmer to step down as Labour leader, and as the instability of the Middle East spills over into British politics, Starmer may need to more effectively contain the fallout lest his fortunes resemble those of previous Labour governments whose achievements were clouded by their decision to partake in the Iraq war. 

  • About the author: Shairee Malhotra is an Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. 
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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