David Rose

Starmer’s no-ceasefire position makes moral and strategic sense

The Labour leader, under fire from a large section of his party, is playing the long game – and playing it well


Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers his keynote address to delegates on the third day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool, northwest England, on October 10, 2023. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

November 03, 2023 14:56

It’s possible to regard the Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer in two contrasting ways. Some, noting that he seems to have changed his mind on some rather important issues - such as whether Jeremy Corbyn, in whose shadow cabinet he served, would have made a good prime minister - regard him an inconsistent flip-flopper, willing to say or do almost anything if he thinks it will assist his quest for votes. Others disagree. Beneath the shifts in attitude and policy, they suggest, is a core of principle, a set of values and beliefs he will not compromise, come what may.

My guess is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. However, there’s a more interesting way to analyse what currently looks like being Starmer’s rise to power: to consider that beneath the apparent contradictions, Starmer is a lot more strategic than his critics believe, and above all, is prepared to play a long game.

His friends suggest he did not love being a member of Corbyn’s front bench team, but he judged - correctly, in my view - that if he was to stand a chance of seizing Labour’s crown after Corbyn’s political demise, he had to endure it.

That has made it difficult for many Jews to warm to him, although since he took over in 2020, he has repaired much of the damage by fulfilling in large measure the promise he made on his first day as leader, to rip out Labour antisemitism by the roots. Under Starmer, the party’s disciplinary apparatus has often acted against members accused of antisemitism with ruthless effectiveness.

As for Jewish voters who still had doubts about his bona fides, he may well have reassured them with his speech at Chatham House on Tuesday on the Israel - Hamas war.

Starmer is sometimes described as a wooden, passionless speaker, but this was a speech with some vivid turns of phrase. On October 7, he said, the goal of Hamas “was not just to kill Jews, it was to bring death upon their fellow Muslims in Gaza”, under what he called “a plan written in blood, to isolate Israel from the West, destroy its improving relations with other Arab Nations and ultimately, provoke wider regional conflicts across the Middle East.”

He didn’t just condemn the attacks but located their origin in antisemitism, describing them as “the biggest slaughter of Jews – and that is why they were killed, do not doubt that - since the Holocaust. Men, women, children, babies murdered, mutilated and tortured by the terrorists of Hamas”.

Of course, the speech’s greatest significance lay in what Starmer said about policy. Facing a party in which its two most important mayors, London’s Sadiq Khan and Manchester’s Andy Burnham, along with Scottish leader Anas Sarwar and at least 60 MPs and 17 shadow ministers have all called for an immediate ceasefire, he insisted that now was not the time.

He repeated his call for “pauses” in the fighting that would allow the people of Gaza to get humanitarian aid. But a full-blown ceasefire would “freeze” the conflict in its current state, “and as we speak, that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capability to carry out the sort of attack we saw on October 7”, with “attacks that are still ongoing” and “hostages who should be released - still held”. Hamas, Starmer said, “would be emboldened and start preparing for future violence immediately”.

In the short term, it’s clear that taking this stand is costing Starmer support and goodwill from substantial parts of is party. So far, he has declined to sack any shadow ministers who have called for a ceasefire, but if they get much more vociferous, he may have to do so or risk losing all authority - which would bring further discomfort.

He did leave himself an escape route, saying that when the “facts on the ground” change, then “we must move to cessation of fighting as quickly as possible”, and the re-starting of a serious search for peace. But having been so clear that he supports Israel’s war aim of “annihilating” Hamas, those facts would have to change a great deal before he could shift his position on a ceasefire without doing real harm to his credibility as a future PM - not just with Jews, but with the wider electorate, and the world.

So why has he done it? The simplest explanation is obvious: he believes it to be right. But if you accept that one of Starmer’s characteristics is to play a long game, it makes political sense, too.

Most voters do not share the view of Israel held by Labour’s left. They abhor terrorism, and recoil from the horrors inflicted by Hamas. And they want a prime minister who looks like a statesman, not an easily swayed, student-level hack who indulges in gesture politics, making empty calls for a ceasefire when he knows full well that neither side in the conflict has any intention of agreeing to one. In the “red wall” seats Labour must win back to achieve victory, a leader prepared  to stand up to sections of his own party may prove to be an asset - just as it once was during the leaderships of figures such as Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair.

Then comes the even longer game: Starmer in office. The better he does in the coming general election, the stronger will be his position with his parliamentary party: very few hard left candidates have been selected in winnable seats, and the bigger his majority, the more isolated the remaining Corbynite rump will become.

But his speech this week wasn’t only aimed at the electorate, but at the actors on the global stage where one day, not that long from now, Starmer wants to appear. There, he will want – not least - to be a protagonist in a renewed Israeli-Palestinoan peace process. Here, I suspect, he has done his future prospects no harm at all.

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November 03, 2023 14:56

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