Steve McCabe: Labour’s reaction to October 7 showed it was a changed party

Outgoing Labour Friends of Israel head says party has changed compared to the Corbyn years


Steve McCabe (wearing light blue shirt) in the ruins of a building in Kibbutz Be'eri during a visit to Israel in March this year. Credit: Labour Friends of Israel

Steve McCabe, the 68-year-old outgoing parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), found his most recent visit to Israel in March, his first since the October 7 massacre, a “very emotional experience”.

“Walking around and picturing previous visits where we laughed and joked with people and commented on things that we'd seen, and then witnessing this rubble and destruction, there was a sense of death around the place. It was awful,” he told the JC.

“Everywhere you look there were signs of chaos and destruction and the young IDF soldier who was showing us round said that two of her relatives had actually lived on the kibbutz, and they had both been killed,” McCabe recalled.

Part of LFI’s role is to take Labour MPs and activists on visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories. One of the favourite stops on their delegations used to be the kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope area, populated by many left-wingers and peace activists, that were so devastated by Hamas terrorists on what some Israelis call “the Black Saturday”.

McCabe, the outgoing MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, who was first elected to Parliament in 1997, had visited Israel on a delegation in July 2023. The contrast to what he saw in March couldn’t have been starker.

“People were traumatised,” he said, “we went to the site of the music festival where some of the horrific attacks and kidnappings took place, we witnessed people wandering around in a state of shock. I remember one gentleman asked how we would feel if it was our daughter that was tied to a tree and gang-raped and then executed?”

The atrocities of October 7 took place at the same time as Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool was under way. Once, the fear of what the Labour leadership might say in reaction to events in the Middle East might have sent fear down the spines of McCabe and his fellow Labour moderates.

Not so on this occasion.

“Seeing the entire Shadow Cabinet turn up to the LFI annual event, which became a vigil on that occasion, and hearing the leader, the shadow foreign secretary, the shadow chancellor, the shadow home secretary, all speak at that event, and knowing that there were people queuing outside, down the street and across the road, and that we were at absolute maximum capacity in the hall, I think that, for me, cemented what a change had occurred in the Labour Party” he said.

McCabe became LFI’s parliamentary chair after the 2019 general election, when by his own admission, things weren’t exactly great. “I think we were our lowest point. Relations with the Jewish community were atrocious.”

On antisemitism, McCabe said his party must be “ever vigilant”. He added, “everybody knows that in all political parties, antisemitism is something that is always underneath the surface, and that people have to be vigilant and stand up to it.” However, unlike in the Corbyn years, “we don't have anyone in the leadership who are turning a blind eye to antisemitism.”

McCabe enjoyed “being able to restore LFI to its rightful role, which is to be a friend of the people of Israel and a bridge in the Labour Party, instead of having to justify our existence” in the Corbyn years.

Other highlights included meeting the President of Israel Isaac Herzog and arranging a meeting between Sir Keir Starmer and then Speaker of the Knesset Mickey Levy. “I sat in on the meeting with him and Keir, where Keir assured them that a Labour government would be as friendly, if not more friendly, to the State of Israel than the existing government,” he claimed.

Starmer, he said, has proven himself a good friend of Israel in the aftermath of October 7. “He's made clear his support for Israel and the Israeli people. He's made clear his support for Israel's right to exist in Israel's right to defend itself.
“He's naturally argued for a ceasefire to be achieved and for a peace process to be put in place, and for Hamas to play no future part in Gaza. I think that's the sort of things you would expect a growing-up, sensible political party to do.”

Why did McCabe decide to step down now? “The honest truth is, I wasn't really expecting a July election, and once it came, and I thought about the enormity of it all, I just realised I'm 69 in August. I've had 27 years,” he said, adding: “It was probably time to make way for someone a bit younger and fresher. I don't really want to be someone who's passed his sell-by date.”

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