Lord Walney

Don’t bow to pressure on Labour's Israel policy, Sir Keir

It would be inexcusable for anyone in Labour to use the threat of 'losing Muslim votes' to pressure him to change his position


MARSTON MORETAINE, BEDFORDSHIRE - OCTOBER 20: Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to media after congratulating newly elected Labour MP for Mid Bedfordshire Alistair Strathern on October 20, 2023 in Marston Moretaine, Bedfordshire. Labour candidate Alistair Strathern overturns Tory majority to win the seat vacated by former Conservative culture secretary Nadine Dorries. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

October 26, 2023 13:12

When I was chair of Labour Friends of Israel under Ed Miliband, someone very senior gave a disarmingly frank explanation in private of why the party was insisting on symbolically recognising Palestine as an independent state without waiting for a peace settlement.

“You just have to look at the numbers,” they said. They meant there were far more Muslim than Jewish voters, who were more likely to be alarmed at Labour moving away from the policy of successive UK governments that recognition for Palestine must be part of a durable settlement that delivered lasting security for Israel.

It was wrong to see peace in the Middle East through the narrow domestic prism of electoral advantage.

Now, when the issue is standing with Israel against the most grotesque antisemitic butchery imaginable, it would be inexcusable for anyone in Labour to use the threat of “losing Muslim votes” to pressure Sir Keir Starmer to change his position.

Those Labour MPs and shadow cabinet members who are allowing that impression to develop need to think very carefully what they are doing.

Sir Keir deserves great credit for the way in which he led the Labour Party conference to stand in solidarity with Israel in the aftermath of a wave of atrocity more horrific even than most of Islamic State’s excesses.

It was important and right for the official opposition to be in lock-step with the government — and every nation across the Western world — in the face of Hamas’s terror.

Sir Keir’s stance in Liverpool and since has been a world away from the antisemitism and hatred that mired Labour under his predecessor.

As it happens, his unequivocal support also helped underline that Labour was under new management, with a leader with the strength to lead his party and not be led by it — an essential component of winning back the trust of the British people.

Apart from the merits of the issue itself, being seen to change his stance because his MPs are worried about losing support in particular constituencies would send the opposite signal.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is indeed dire and Labour is right to push for relief for Palestinian civilians caught in the cauldron Hamas has created for them. But Sir Keir knows that any position he takes needs to be guided by what he believes is right for global security and the protection of vulnerable people, not what is domestically expedient. Foreign policy and the nation’s security are too important.

There is understandable pressure on ministers and the opposition to give a running commentary on the daily conduct of Israel’s defence of its people. Yet this is a moment for both Labour and the government to help raise the world’s sights to the longer term, to the secure future for the Middle East that is more needed than ever, which Hamas and its Iranian sponsors are determined to destroy.

The UK can play a key role in pushing for a revived Middle East peace initiative, helping save the Abraham Accords and using its influence to explore again the prize of normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia to deliver a viable two state solution.

That is the mission Sir Keir Starmer will inherit as prime minister. It is the mission he can promote now as Leader of the Opposition. It is a better prospect for lasting security for the Palestinian people than heeding any call to renege on support for Israel in its darkest hour.

John Woodcock, Baron Walney is a crossbencher in the House of Lords

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October 26, 2023 13:12

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