At the end of a tumultuous political week, Sir Keir Starmer finds himself in a happy place. Having done the right thing by continuing to insist that now is not the time to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, he has weathered a rebellion by more than a quarter of his parliamentary party, garnered plaudits from commentators and maintained his party’s opinion poll lead.
Speaking on LBC, the former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson, a popular and capable figure who served in Cabinet for most of the Blair - Brown years, delivered a succinct verdict. Had Starmer given in to demands for Labour to support the Scottish National Party’s “ceasefire now” amendment to the King’s Speech, Johnson said, he would have been asking Israel to declare a truce with a terrorist group that had “barbarically killed” more than 1,200 of its citizens and taken hundreds more hostage.
According to Johnson, “this was just never on”. Yes, 56 Labour MPs had supported the amendment, but only eight shadow ministers had voted in favour, and none from the shadow cabinet.
It was a pity to lose figures such as Jess Phillips, who has been forced to step down from her post as shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding. But overall, Johnson concluded, “I think he’s stronger.” As for the polls: according to a survey published on Friday, Labour’s lead still stands at 21 per cent, at the level where it has been hovering for many months.
Opinions will differ over Starmer’s primary motive for taking a position against an immediate ceasefire, which would, as he said in a speech two weeks ago, merely “freeze” Hamas in place as rulers of the Gaza Strip, allowing it to regroup and plot more murderous havoc. Some Jews will never forgive him for serving as shadow Brexit minister under Jeremy Corbyn, and so assume that his main driver here must be the quest for electoral advantage.
Personally, I disagree. A fascinating profile of Starmer published last week in Esquire reveals that in the days when he was a practising QC, so able to command high fees, he devoted as much as 70 per cent of his time to working for free, pro bono, much of this representing death row clients whose lives he helped save in cases that dramatically reduced the use of capital punishment in several Commonwealth jurisdictions.
Jeremy Corbyn (Photo: Getty Images)
This must have cost him hundreds of thousands of pounds, and I don’t think someone prepared to shoulder that burden ought to be regarded as a man unmotivated by principles. As for serving under Corbyn, I have already suggested in this column that one of Starmer’s defining characteristics is his ability to play a long game - and as he has pointed out this week, he has made sure that Corbyn is no longer a Labour MP, and will never stand for the party again.
The more significant and interesting question is what the rebellion over the ceasefire amendment suggests about the Labour Party, and its relationship with Israel and the Jewish community.
To begin with, it’s noteworthy that of the 56 who supported it, 27 - that is to say, 48 per cent - were members of the hard left Socialist Campaign Group, Labour’s remaining Corbynite clique. It would have been astonishing if the likes of the Leeds MP Richard Burgon, who was filmed long ago saying “Zionism is the enemy of peace”, had not backed the amendment, and indeed, he has spent much of his time since the October 7 atrocities campaigning against what he calls Israel’s “collective punishment” of the Palestinians.
But that still leaves another 29 supporters, including Phillips and others usually regarded as moderates, such as Stella Creasey.
The first and most obvious point here is the influence of demographics. The electorate in Creasey’s Walthamstow constituency is 23.1 per cent Muslim, and only 0.4 per cent Jewish, while Phillips’s seat of Birmingham Yardley is 35.4 per cent Muslim and has almost no Jewish voters at all. Overall, analysis shows that other supporters of the ceasefire amendment are dependent on Muslims’ votes.
Another factor is experience. Of the 56, a total of 35 - 63 per cent - first entered Parliament at the 2015 general election or later, and so were selected as candidates when either the soft-left Ed Miliband or the hard-left Corbyn were leading the party, in an era when Palestinian flags were still being waved at Labour conferences. This also means the supporters of a ceasefire are disproportionately younger than the parliamentary party as a whole.
So where does this leave us?
In my view, the issue comes back to the party’s leadership. As Johnson noted, despite predictions last weekend that several shadow cabinet members would jeopardise their careers by voting for a ceasefire, none did. Some of those who followed the party whip and abstained have had been vilified on social media, such as shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood and shadow health secretary Wes Streeting. Both represent constituencies with many Muslim voters. Also significant is shadow international development minister Lisa Nandy, who happens to be a former chair of Labour Friends of Palestine.
For now, discipline has been maintained. And if Labour wins a majority of the size the polls currently project, the political complexion of the post-election parliamentary party will be far more closely aligned with Starmer than the present one.
I don’t need to point out that we are living through highly polarised, divisive times, in which to reject a Gaza ceasefire takes a degree of courage, an acceptance that in the interests of preventing future brutal conflict, more innocents will die. The good news is that while there are dissidents, so far, the Labour leadership’s nerve seems to be holding.