The Gaza crisis has put Keir Starmer between a rock and a hard place. With less than a year to go until an election he looks destined to win, it is obligatory for him to react like a world leader in waiting. From Ankara to Cairo, the key players are watching Starmer’s response like hawks, for signs of how he might be pressurised or incentivised once in power.
At the same time, his party leads a voter coalition whose fragility and diversity is at the root of its failures since 2015. And two vital parts of that coalition – Muslims and the liberal-pacifist intelligentsia – are revolted by Starmer’s language of statecraft.
They want to see Labour demand Israel sign a binding ceasefire with Hamas, and to criticise alleged Israeli war crimes as firmly as it does when Russia commits them. Hundreds of Labour councillors, largely from Muslim communities, have signed petitions critical of Starmer’s line. In the PLP, for the first time during his leadership, disquiet reaches way beyond the 33-strong Socialist Campaign Group.
As a result, Labour had to spend four weeks in an internal argument about the difference between a “humanitarian pause” – the diplomatic language preferred by Joe Biden – and a permanent ceasefire. In the process, frontbenchers have been forced into tortuous phraseology to swerve what is obvious: that Israel is breaching the laws of armed conflict; that the Netanyahu government is acting dangerously, without a viable endgame; and that the most pressing task is to avoid regional escalation.
But those drawing doomy parallels with Tony Blair in 2003 are wrong. If Blair had shown one-tenth of the emotional intelligence and party management that Starmer has displayed since October 7, he would never have gone to war.
Starmer’s Chatham House speech, where he aligned the ceasefire and the humanitarian pause as goals on a continuum, not opposites, and warned Israel there is no blank cheque for unlawful actions, looked statesmanlike. It was the result of listening – to party members and to outside expertise.
But his travails over Gaza betray a deeper problem: there is not yet an ethos of Starmerism. He fought for leadership on 10 pledges designed to appeal to the 40% of Labour members his team (myself included) deemed centre-left “idealists”. Then he ditched the pledges and proceeded to sideline not only the Corbynite hardliners, but many of the soft-left activists and politicians who had backed him.
The result has been a turn to a form of managerialism: sound finance plus industrial dirigisme on the economy; traditional labour policies on crime, migration and defence; rock solid Atlanticism on Nato and the nuclear deterrent; plus a determination to reform public services and devolve power. It’s a programme, but not a philosophy. So when an event like October 7 happens, creating major divisions in society, unleashing mass mobilisations that Labour cannot control, technocratic managerialism is never going to be enough.
What I noticed from the very morning of the attack, which coincided with the start of Labour conference, was how unsure ordinary members were: everybody knew the line; few people wanted to go on record with anything more complex than the line.
Soon there were instructions flowing on what not to do: be cautious about attending demos, don’t take party banners, avoid certain chants and phrases. As a result, Labour handed the initiative on the streets to the Corbyn-aligned campaign led by Stop The War. And they, in turn, created a non-hostile environment for Leninist, jihadi, antisemitic and pro-Hamas elements.
Corbyn, who could not summon 5,000 people to his march calling for the disarming of Ukraine, now has 100,000 people prepared to cheer him to the rooftops. Corbyn knows that, if he were to stand as an independent in Islington, his new party would risk becoming the prisoner of Russian proxies and far-left cranks. But the scale of hostility to Starmer among Labour’s liberal-pacifist base might still tempt him.
Yet Starmer is correct to insist Israel has the right destroy Hamas; correct to aim for what’s achievable using diplomacy – humanitarian ceasefires – rather than the fantasy of any long-term agreement between Israel and Hamas. Hamas’s own reaction, promising to stage further atrocities, is already proving Starmer right.
What’s missing is the steel shown by the German deputy chancellor, Robert Habeck, in a celebrated video address last week: support for Israel, he warned protesters, is foundational to our state. He threatened to deport people without residency who burn the Israeli flag, and explicitly called for Muslim organisations to distance themselves more strongly from Hamas. Plus he issued a clear condemnation of settler violence on the West Bank.
That’s the moral clarity that comes from having a shared, established ethos and – in Germany’s case – a written constitution embodying it. Though Britain does not have the latter, Starmer should now do more to establish the former inside his party.
It came as a shock to many members that Labour chose to align itself with the language of the US state department, not Sheffield City Council’s Labour group. It should never have to do so again.
Labour is a coalition party: it has to include both Jews and Muslims, Bristol hipsters and the Red Wall working class, small-town Britain and the globalised metropolis. In normal times it can be held together with something as flimsy as an election manifesto; in times of grave crisis, only a coherent ethos will do.