Keir Starmer hit by open Labour revolt over support for Israel

Keir Starmer is facing mounting pressure to shift his stance on the Israel-Hamas war as some of his party’s most senior politicians outside the shadow cabinet broke ranks to call for a ceasefire.

In a blow to Sir Keir’s authority, mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham as well as Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, defied their leader’s position on Gaza.

Sir Keir was also hit with warnings that more than 100 Labour MPs – half his parliamentary party – back calls for an immediate cessation to the fighting. Forty nine MPs have now publicly made the call.

He now risks a thorny internal row within his previously united party, just two weeks after he appeared to be riding high in the wake of a successful party conference and well ahead of the Tories in the polls.

It came as:

  • One Labour MP described the situation as a “clusterf***”, warning that voters could desert the party without a change of tack

  • Labour MPs were offered security advice as they come under pressure from their constituents

  • A top pollster warned Labour that “divided parties don’t win elections”

  • A UN aid boss said people in Gaza “feel stunned, alienated and abandoned”

Both Sir Keir and Rishi Sunak have backed the idea of “humanitarian pauses” in the war – as distinct from a ceasefire – to allow aid to enter Gaza. Sir Keir has consistently argued that Israel has the right to defend itself after an attack by Hamas terrorists that left 1,400 dead.

But in a video message, Mr Khan said that thousands of innocent civilians had already been killed in Israel and Gaza. “With the humanitarian crisis set to deteriorate even further, I’m calling for a ceasefire”.

The move would “stop the killing” and “allow vital aid supplies to reach those who need it in Gaza”, he added. It is understood Mr Khan spoke to Sir Keir before he released his recording.

Mr Sarwar also called for a ceasefire in a video on social media, saying: “And let me be clear, that means a ceasefire right now.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer met with his party’s Muslim MPs (Joe Giddens/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer met with his party’s Muslim MPs (Joe Giddens/PA)

While 49 MPs have gone public, veteran Labour MP Clive Betts told The Independent more supported a shift in position.“There’s a majority of the parliamentary party in favour of a ceasefire,” he said and urged his party leader to “go that bit further and back (it)”.

One Labour MP told The Independent: “For many MPs and potential Labour voters the damage has been done – it will leave a bad taste with them. There are a lot of emails from liberals, not just those on the left, who are really unhappy and who might stay at home at the election. It’s a complete clusterf***.”

The UK and the US have also refused to back ceasefire calls. No 10 said this week that the only ones who would benefit would be Hamas.

Before the mayors made their call, senior Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan, the former shadow minister for mental health, also put further pressure on Sir Keir to demand a ceasefire.

“Of course Israel has the right to defend itself… But what we are seeing in retaliation is collective punishment of the Palestinian people,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

But those calling for a ceasefire faced a backlash amid accusations they did not understand a complex situation. Former Gordon Brown aide Ian Austin, who quit the party in 2019 over its failure to deal with antisemitism, tweeted: “Sadiq Khan can’t stop kids killing each other on the streets of London, yet thinks he can provide useful advice on the most complicated and difficult conflict in the world.”

In an apparently conciliatory response to the calls, a Labour Party spokesperson said: “Of course, we understand why people want to call for a ceasefire. The Palestinian people are not Hamas, and they are suffering terribly. That’s why we support humanitarian pauses so that aid, fuel, water electricity and medicines can urgently get to those who need it.”

But he added: “We also have to recognise Israel was subject to a vile terrorist attack. Israel has a right and a duty to defend itself, rescue the hostages and stop Hamas from being able to carry out that sort of terrorist attack ever again.” Action must be taken “within international law”, he added.

Labour frontbencher Steve Reed also defended Sir Keir’s position on Friday – insisting that doing the “right” thing was the priority rather than worrying about votes.

Pollster Chris Hopkins from Savanta said the danger for Labour was “divided parties don’t win elections. But there’s little evidence at the moment to suggest Labour are more divided than the Conservatives.” “It could get worse, divisions could deepen within Labour and I’d expect the Tories to try and capitalise on it,” he added.

Meanwhile, Labour chief whip Alan Campbell has written to the party’s MPs to offer security advice. Mr Campbell said Labour MPs should take special care if attending any “protests and demonstrations” about the Gaza conflict.

Keir Starmer visited the South Wales Islamic Centre mosque (Labour Party)
Keir Starmer visited the South Wales Islamic Centre mosque (Labour Party)

More than 250 Muslim Labour councillors urged Sir Keir and deputy leader Angela Rayner to back an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza – with his original comments on LBC also sparking resignations from several councillors.

Up to four members of the shadow cabinet are said to be on resignation watch over the issue. Sarah Owen, the shadow minister for faith, and Rachel Hopkins, shadow Cabinet Office minister, are among the frontbenchers considering whether to quit, according to The Times.

Frontbencher Yasmin Qureshi, a shadow equalities minister, also defied the leadership by calling for a ceasefire at PMQs this week.

Sir Keir was forced to hold crunch talks with a group of Muslim Labour MPs to address anger at his handling of the crisis – including comments in which he appeared to back the cutting of power and water to Gaza.

It was not until 20 October that he sought to clarify his position. “I was saying that Israel has the right to self-defence,” he told broadcasters. “I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines.”