Outcry, resignations, backtracking: Labour's floundering response to Israel's war crimes

The inside scoop on a chaotic three weeks for Starmer.

Outcry, resignations, backtracking: Labour's floundering response to Israel's war crimes
Keir Starmer meets with Muslim community leaders at the South Wales Islamic Centre in Cardiff, October 22, 2023. Credit: The Labour party/X

When asked how many people in Gaza must die before the Labour party will join international calls for a ceasefire, a senior advisor to leader Keir Starmer reportedly replied, “As many as it takes”. This remark epitomised the way in which senior party officials have egged on the Israeli war machine in recent weeks, with full knowledge of the humanitarian consequences and civilian death toll in the besieged strip.

During prime minister’s questions on 25 October, Rishi Sunak expressed support for “specific” humanitarian pauses, which are “distinct” from a ceasefire. The Labour party has since followed suit, failing to distinguish itself from the Conservative government. Labour’s messaging since Hamas’s October 7 attacks has effectively given Israel carte blanche to commit its own war crimes – a fact that the party is now trying to cover up after facing outcry from Muslim and pro-Palestine groups, and a wave of resignations of party members and councillors. These constituents are unlikely to be appeased by Labour’s current pitiful response, which still falls short of the most basic call for a desperately-needed ceasefire.

In the long run up to next year’s general election, Labour continues to position itself as the sensible alternative to a period of increasingly fascistic and shambolic Tory rule. However, internal documents seen by Vashti, in addition to conversations with councillors, staffers and other stakeholders tell a very different story: one of fear, division and hypocrisy.

Setting the record straight 

In recent days, the Labour frontbench has been eager to assert that its position has, from the beginning, included the demand for Israel to “act in line with international law”. But one only has to look back at comments made by leadership earlier this month to see that this claim is not accurate, and that the communications now being pumped out by the party do little more than pay lip service to the “humanitarian situation” in Gaza. The story of Starmer’s responsibility for aiding and abetting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Gaza must be set straight.

On 7 October, Labour sent out briefing lines to members of parliament, limiting them to amplifying statements from Starmer and David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary. In this initial intervention, no mention was made of Palestinian civilians, and the essential point outlined was support for Israel’s “right of self-defence”. In a conversation with Vashti, one Labour staffer called this briefing “depressingly indistinguishable from Tory lines,” indicating the frustration felt by many parliamentary staff over the position the party has taken and their sense of powerlessness when it comes to shifting the Labour lines from within. Yesterday, Unite the union’s parliamentary and constituency staff branch took the unprecedented step of passing a motion demanding their bosses “ensure they aren’t complicit in Israel’s crimes”. 

With the leak of Lammy’s briefing paper to Labour MPs, this messaging became clear to the public. The paper included various references to the need to uphold international law, but ultimately stood as evidence that no matter what actions Israel was found to have taken – including using white phosphorus, which international law explicitly prohibits – the opposition would continue to support it on the grounds of “self-defence”.

As late as 22 October, Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international development, appeared on the BBC and refused to say that Israel has broken international law, despite being asked four separate times by her interviewer. Then, two days later, frontbencher Florence Eshalomi took the extraordinary step of revising the record to redact her demand for a ceasefire, which she had made on the floor of the House of Commons. In a conversation with Vashti, one Labour staffer believes this could only have happened under the strict instruction of the Labour whips and the threat of losing her post as shadow minister for democracy.

In a parliamentary Labour party briefing from 24 October, a transcript of which has been obtained by Vashti, we see a clear indication that this messaging will not be changing any time soon. The UK has already deployed military assets to the region which are on standby to “provide practical support” when the ground invasion begins, which Lammy’s office states is “looking inevitable.” According to the briefing, Labour has “backed these military moves”, proving that, even now, calls for humanitarian aid and “pauses” from the Labour frontbench are disingenuous. 

Behind the scenes

In private, Labour officials are voicing concern about the party’s strategy, but few will speak out against the lines coming from the frontbench. A Palestinian rights campaigner who is in regular contact with Labour politicians told Vashti that “MPs across the party – and beyond – are willing to give expressions of solidarity and recognition of Israel’s multiple violations of international law”, but stressed that they are only prepared to do so privately. These communications fail to translate into policy or action because, the source continued, these MPs “fear the consequences from their own party, which has chilled any form of serious, tangible support for Palestinians.”

Indeed, many agree that the Labour party has cultivated a powerful culture of fear in order to manufacture consent for its position. Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, co-founder of Jewish Voice for Labour, told Vashti that before the events of 7 October, there was “a sort of nod to the fact of injustice against Palestinians, so a bit of critical commentary was allowed”. In the wake of the recent crisis, however, “all that seems to matter is solidarity with the state of Israel”. Wimborne-Idrissi says that the party has “deliberately crushed” efforts to discuss the situation, forcing members to either fall in line or leave the party for good.

For those who cannot reconcile the party’s position with their own morals, the second option is the only one that’s viable. Edward Mundy, one of nine Oxford city councillors to have resigned from the Labour party in the last two weeks, told Vashti that conversations with Labour higher-ups made it “clear that there was not going to be any further movement on the position of the national party”. Mundy says that he and his fellow councillors gave “plenty of time for the party to see that they had to be making the just calls”, but their requests failed to register with leadership. So, Mundy says, only one choice remained: “We had to go.”

Damage control

The outcry and resignations, coupled with mounting pressure from Muslim communities, which have previously made up a core Labour constituent group, and from Labour voters at large – a remarkable 89% of whom support a ceasefire – have now pushed Starmer into a campaign of damage control. Taj Ali, industrial correspondent at Tribune, has been reporting on the disappointment and anger towards the party. “For far too long, the Labour party has taken British Muslim voters for granted,” Ali told Vashti, calling this “a conscious decision in the knowledge that these voters have nowhere else to turn”. 

But Labour now appears to be realising that sustained support for Israeli war crimes is, for some, a red line. In a 26 October survey of 30,000 Muslim voters, the Muslim Census found a 66% reduction in support for Labour. 

Labour’s recent support for humanitarian pauses, an aid corridor, and the standards of international law suggest an attempt by the party to distance itself from its earlier unequivocal position. On 20 October, Starmer gave an interview with ITV in which he “clarified” his stance, claiming he had not said what he did say: that Israel had the right to withhold water and fuel from the Gaza Strip. 

More recently, Starmer visited a Muslim community centre in South Wales, following which he posted a tweet that appeared to imply these individuals were somehow responsible for returning the hostages held by Hamas. After widespread outrage, the community centre issued a letter underscoring its “dismay” at Starmer’s representation of the meeting, leaving Labour in an increasingly tenuous position. 

And still, in a direct rebuke of calls from the Labour Muslim Network to apologise to Palestinians for his earlier comments, Starmer has yet to acknowledge – let alone condemn – Israel’s war crimes. With over 7,000 dead, a ground invasion on the horizon, and still no clear call for a ceasefire, this shift in messaging still appears hollow and insufficient. 

Organising outside Labour

For Ali, the root of the current crisis is a long-term problem both with Labour’s messaging and political goals. Rather than reacting to events with appropriate care, party officials frame their actions through Tory lines and polling data. Councillor Mundy expressed similar concerns, arguing that “Starmer’s obviously got messaging that he wants to hang onto”, which leads him to rely on “short and rather meaningless soundbites”. 

This is all the more concerning considering Starmer’s professional background as a human rights lawyer. As Mundy highlighted, “He is perfectly capable – or should be perfectly capable – of expressing the horror of what’s been happening and the context of it.”

On the left, there appears to be a growing consensus that we cannot rely on the Labour party to represent our interests, especially as the war against the Palestinian people continues to increase in velocity and intensity. At the same time, many Jews on the left – including me – are feeling the need to clarify that the Labour party’s pro-war statements are not for our benefit and do not contribute to our safety. Labour continues to pursue its own political goals, built around a desire for power and nothing more. And as Professor Kamel Hawwash noted in his compelling letter of resignation from the party this week, “Palestine … is not just a Muslim issue from an electoral perspective. It is an issue of justice, politics and human rights.”

Hawwash is correct, and it is in protest and acts of unity that we can counter the messaging from the Labour party and the rest of the western political establishment with all its genocidal consequences. Ali points to one source of hope: the potential for powerful leftwing alliances between Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain. Speaking of the Muslim community in his hometown of Luton, Ali says: “There is an opportunity to break down barriers and establish links between progressive voices across different communities.” 

Councillor Mundy, too, looks towards the twin city agreement between Oxford and Ramallah as an example of how we can forge connections and use our voices in our communities to speak out for a peaceful future. And Wimborne-Idrissi echoes these sentiments, encouraging Jews in Britain to resist the divisiveness coming out of Westminster and to “work together to require our political leaders to take a stand for justice, equality, and freedom – in the Middle East and everywhere.”

The Labour party makes it clear there is no institutional resistance in Britain to the global right-wing surge. Instead, we are going to have to build spaces of solidarity for ourselves, both in support of Palestine and in support of each other. It is up to us to forge our own alliances within our communities – alliances that prove the powers that be wrong. ▼ 

Vashti approached the Labour party for comment, which directed us to Keir Starmer’s recent statements, both made since the LBC interview, which the party said “clarify Labour’s position on this, including [its call] for a humanitarian pause in Gaza.

Kendall Gardner is an editor at Vashti and a doctoral candidate in political theory at the University of Oxford.