For domestic political reasons, UK Labour party leader Keir Starmer has entered the stage of auditioning as prime minister to build his relationship with the public.
Palestine has always been a core Labour concern and the Israel-Gaza war is providing a key test of how Mr Starmer, whose party has a 20-point lead in the polls, is shaping up as a potential national leader in 2025. But the Gaza siege is a rallying point for many among Labour’s grassroots and something of a lightning rod for those dissidents opposed to Mr Starmer’s centrist and consensual leadership.
When the Hamas attacks took place, the opposition leader was overtly determined to not allow a cigarette paper of difference between himself and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives. This led Mr Starmer into an interviewer’s trap last week when he immediately answered “no” to a question about Israel refraining from a breach of international law by cutting off water to the two million-plus people under siege.
From a media strategist’s perspective, the question was well handled in that it avoided headlines saying Mr Starmer was calling on Israel to pull back. With a political adviser’s eye, however, the issue was that Mr Starmer was disavowing his own comments on the necessity of Israel fighting within the principles laid down by international law.
That clip went viral, and Mr Starmer is now on the defensive.
He has said it has been taken up wrongly, an acknowledgment of how widespread Labour’s unease with its leader’s stance is. Demonstrations outside the party’s new headquarters in London coincided with its victory on Friday morning in two by-elections that inflicted record-setting defeats for the Conservatives.
While the good news of the election results overshadowed the protest at Labour HQ, the fact of the protest is real. It can fire a starting gun on a very significant backlash in his own ranks.
There is no doubt that the scenes of death and hardship from Gaza are getting more stark and painful by the day. The cumulative effect of this suffering on Labour opinion will be very hard for the leadership around Mr Starmer to continue to resist in the manner that his winner’s mantle has afforded him so far.
The arguments that he employed in the wake of the Hamas attack played into the signature battle of his leadership since taking over from the leftist Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn’s ragtag allies and sympathisers were already reeling from allegations of anti-Semitism that is the singular legacy of their time at the helm.
Mr Starmer ordered the ranks of Labour representatives from front-bench spokespersons through to local council representatives to follow disciplined lines on the Israel’s Gaza offensive. There were tight lips when asked to comment and advice imposed not to join the demonstrations across the UK arranged by pro-Palestinian groups.
It was an impressive show of leadership heft, one informed by the fight that Mr Starmer has waged within Labour to remove a faction that was allegedly committed to targeting its Jewish members.
Last week marked eight years since a remarkable image of Mr Corbyn was published. The populist who had long practised Latin American-style revolutionary politics was dressed in white tie to visit Buckingham Palace. The occasion was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit and Mr Corbyn was attending the banquet.
The very sight of Mr Corbyn, who is usually pictured in cheap short-sleeved shirts, in such formal regalia was not accidental. It came after his default-like victory in the Labour leadership contest in 2015.
The attempt to legitimise Mr Corbyn as a mainstream leader has left a bitter legacy for Labour. After all, the party mainstream still had to remain loyal to their overall politics. Leading figures, including Mr Starmer, served under Mr Corbyn. They had colleagues broken by the feuding and rejected by the party hierarchy, but the people who now run the party stayed with the tent.
It was only when Mr Starmer, who is a former prosecutor, took the reins that a systematic attempt to root out hate politics could be launched. This has taken the shape of hard-hitting reports, adoption of new procedures and disciplinary expulsions. It has been a major aspect of Mr Starmer’s efforts to ensure that Labour is credible and fit to challenge for power.
Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative party chairman and the first female Muslim cabinet minister, last week called for a rethink. She said Mr Starmer’s actions looked like he was taking the Muslim electorate for granted. She complained that his activists were being muzzled.
Mr Starmer has set forth his position in a way that suggests he is sincere about his position. He has not accepted that his background in international law should have led him to shift his tone.
Events on the ground in Gaza are what matters and the international ability to influence these is many-layered and complex. To suggest a role in that matrix for Mr Starmer is not feasible.
Within the UK, he has an important role for how the country views and absorbs this conflict. The pressure on him is only just taking shape.