Keir Starmer tries to stabilise support after Gaza backlash

Labour leader gives speech after party suspended MP Andy McDonald over 'deeply offensive' comments at pro-Palestine rally

Keir Starmer is flanked by police as demonstrators protest outside Chatham House following his speech on Gaza. AFP
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Labour leader Keir Starmer tried to calm his critics on Tuesday over his stance on Gaza amid a growing rebellion within his party's ranks.

It comes only a day after he suspended MP Andy McDonald and launched an investigation into “deeply offensive” comments he made at a pro-Palestine rally at the weekend.

Mr Starmer is facing mounting pressure with hundreds in his party calling for a ceasefire.

In a speech at London's Chatham House on Tuesday, he attempted to clarify his position on why he believes a truce is not presently appropriate.

He warned a permanent halt at this stage would leave Hamas – designated a terrorist group by the European Union, the UK and the US – with the capability to carry out another attack and repeated his calls for a humanitarian pause so aid can be distributed to civilians in Gaza.

“While I understand calls for a ceasefire at this stage, I do not believe it is the correct position now,” he said.

“A ceasefire always freezes a conflict in the state where it currently lies and as we speak that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capability to carry out attacks. Hamas would be emboldened and would start preparing for future violence immediately.”

A number of senior Labour politicians had called for a total ceasefire in the past week, including London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour’s Scottish leader Anas Sarwar.

But Mr Starmer has so far aligned Labour with the British and US governments in favouring “pauses” in the fighting rather than a complete halt.

He accepted he has a duty to address collective responsibility in his party over Labour’s stance on the conflict.

Asked by the BBC if he would allow ministers to undermine his responsibility were he to become prime minister, the Labour leader said: “I think it is impossible for anyone to see the suffering we are seeing in Gaza and not feel compelled to try and do something about it.

“That is why I said in my short speech that I understand why people are asking for a ceasefire.

“It is for me to address collective responsibility, I recognise that. It matters and I take that duty extremely seriously, but I put it in the context of understanding what is driving people in the call for a ceasefire, which is in my judgment not the call that we should be making as things stand, for the reasons I have set out.”

On Monday he suspended Mr McDonald over comments he made at a pro-Palestine rally at the weekend.

Another Labour MP, John McDonnell, defended Mr McDonald, saying the suspension “isn't just unjust, it is absolute nonsense”.

Mr McDonald, who will sit as an independent MP for Middlesbrough while an investigation takes place, had used the phrase “between the river and the sea” in a speech during a demonstration at the weekend.

He said his choice of words was part of a wider “heartfelt plea for an end to the killings” in Gaza.

“The comments made by Andy McDonald at the weekend were deeply offensive, particularly at a time of rising anti-Semitism which has left Jewish people fearful for their safety,” a Labour spokesman said.

Ahead of Mr Starmer's speech, Alex Cunningham became the latest shadow minister to call for an immediate halt to the violence, describing it as “heartbreaking” to see “ordinary people caught up in horrors”.

“There must be an immediate ceasefire to get vital aid to Palestinians, give the UN a chance seek the release of Hamas-held hostages and end the deadly attacks on Palestinian and Israeli people,” he said.

Yasmin Qureshi, Jess Phillips and Imran Hussain are among other Labour figures who have joined calls for an end to the fighting.

But it is not Mr Starmer facing a backlash. On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fired Tory MP Paul Bristow after he broke ranks to publicly urge the leader to push for a “permanent ceasefire” in Gaza.

Mr Bristow, a Tory MP and ministerial aide at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, had written to the Prime Minister saying a ceasefire would save lives.

He said Palestinian civilians were facing “collective punishment” as a result of Israel’s siege and aerial campaign in the wake of the Hamas bloodshed of October 7.

“A permanent ceasefire would save lives and allow for a continued column of humanitarian aid to reach the people who need it the most,” he wrote.

“The brutal Hamas attacks against innocent civilians are unforgivable.”

But he said hostages need to be released, adding: “It is challenging to understand how the present strategy of bombing Gaza will lead to the release of hostages.”

A spokeswoman for No 10 Downing Street said he had been asked to leave his post following comments that “were not consistent with the principles of collective responsibility”.

Updated: November 01, 2023, 9:41 AM