David Lammy, shadow foreign secretary for the UK’s Labour Party, is spending three days this week touring Middle Eastern capitals to discuss hostages, peace and the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.
So what? His leader isn’t with him. Sir Keir Starmer is in crisis management mode in London, where the long reach of the war is mercifully not being felt as violence, but is threatening to tear apart the opposition.
The Hamas massacre of 1,400 Israelis and Israel’s devastating response have challenged British policing and shaken British multiculturalism and politics:
- London’s top police officer has demanded clarity from government on how to enforce anti-hate speech laws at pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
- The Met has reported a 14-fold increase in anti-semitic incidents and a three-fold increase in reports of Islamophobia.
- Starmer has been walking a tightrope between a Corbynite Labour past stained by anti-semitism and a Labour future which he hopes will be in power. And he’s nearly fallen off it.
11 October – four days after the Hamas attacks, Starmer tells an interviewer Israel “has the right” to withhold power and water from Palestinians as long as it’s acting within international law. Protests follow from Labour councillors, MPs and senior colleagues demanding that their leader call for a ceasefire.
31 October – after weeks of agonising and a series of redrafts in deference to pro-Palestinian feeling, Starmer gives a speech defending his no ceasefire stance while calling for everything but. He says:
- “We must move to a cessation of fighting as quickly as possible.”
- Israel must “submit to the rules of international law”.
- “The right to self-defence is fundamental but not a blank cheque.”
- Aid must get through.
Enough already? Not exactly. Starmer is determined not to let Labour’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause be captured again by the anti-semitism that poisoned his party under Corbyn, just as he’s determined not to let triumphalism or complacency end his dream of power as Neil Kinnock’s did in 1992.
Cartoonists like to think of the dream as a Ming vase. Starmer could still drop it:
- More than 30 local Labour councillors have quit since 7 October, saying calling for a “humanitarian pause” isn’t enough.
- One Labour MP has been suspended for using the phrase “between the river and the sea” at a demonstration – a formulation also used by Hamas when calling for the destruction of Israel even though McDonald sought to soften its impact with a plea for Palestinians and Israelis to live “in peaceful liberty”.
- Another MP, Shabana Mahmood, has threatened to quit over what she calls Starmer’s support for collective punishment of Gaza’s Palestinians. Fourteen more including six frontbenchers have lined up behind her saying if she goes they will too.
- Labour fears 20 Commons seats could be at risk in the event of a full-blown anti-Labour rebellion by Muslim voters at the next election. The Tories say 30 could be in play: only three UK constituencies are Muslim-majority but according to the 2021 census there are 11 in which Muslims are the largest religious group. In 2019 the Muslim Council of Britain said there were 31 with enough Muslims to swing the outcome of an election.
An editorial in yesterday’s Guardian said collective responsibility in the shadow cabinet was breaking down in “a sign of things to come”. Politico reports mutterings among Labour backbenchers that if the war drags on and gaps widen between Starmer and his rank and file, the Tories may be emboldened to bring forward the election to next spring.
The irony. Outside the UK, no one is listening. Even though Starmer is still likely to be Britain’s next prime minister, he has zero influence over events in Gaza or Israel.
And yet… For British Labour to be agonising over the real agonies of Gazans and Israelis is not inappropriate. This is the country that brought the world the British Mandate and the Balfour Declaration. Talk of displacement of Palestinians in 2023 “lands on the bruises of history,” Starmer acknowledged in his speech. It was a good line, and true.
aLSO, in the nibs
NEW from tortoise
Immigration: have we taken back control?
Lots of politicians have promised to get net migration down to tens of thousands a year. But it remains stubbornly high. Why? And how are our attitudes to immigration changing?