Pro-Palestine Politics Hit a Wall in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party

The leadership of the UK’s main opposition party has managed to contain internal dissent over Israel’s war on Gaza.

Dahlia Krutkovich and Jonathan Shamir
February 27, 2024

Pro-Palestine protesters gather outside the offices of Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and fellow Labour MP Tulip Siddiq in London, on November 18th, 2023.

Ron Fassbender/Alamy

On February 21st, the British Parliament was set to consider a motion introduced by the Scottish National Party (SNP) calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. The measure had sparked a crisis for the Labour Party, the United Kingdom’s main opposition party, which had thus far joined the ruling Conservative Party in hewing to the United States’s line on Gaza, despite outcry from its base. A previous ceasefire motion brought by the SNP in November had occasioned a wave of insubordination from Labour’s members of Parliament (MPs): Centrist party leader Keir Starmer had instructed his lawmakers to abstain from voting, but 56 of them had flouted his orders, including ten of Labour’s most senior members. Some of these senior members also resigned from their leadership positions, and Starmer stripped the others of their status as punishment for their defiance.

In response to the SNP’s motion, Starmer acted quickly to prevent another, even greater public challenge to his authority. “Many MPs who remained loyal to [Starmer] last time told him they couldn’t do so again unless they were allowed to vote for an immediate ceasefire,” one Labour source told The Guardian. The paper reported that up to 100 Labour MPs—more than half of the party’s lawmakers—might be preparing to defy leadership’s orders, including some members of Starmer’s shadow cabinet, the hand-picked team of advisors who would ostensibly form his cabinet were Starmer to assume power. Labour leadership responded to this threat by proposing its own amendment calling for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” which added a number of qualifications absent from the SNP’s motion, including that “Israel cannot be expected to cease fighting if Hamas continues with violence” and that “Israelis have the right to the assurance that the horror of 7th October cannot happen again.” While the proposed amendment marked an apparent shift in party leadership’s position on a ceasefire, critics understood its language as insufficient or even self-contradictory. “Labour’s amendment was a lot weaker than the SNP’s, and had a lot more caveats that essentially undid the call for an immediate ceasefire,” said Taj Ali, the co-editor of the left-wing magazine Tribune. Some of Labour’s own members agreed that the amendment did not go far enough. “By making its call for a ceasefire so conditional and caveated, the Labour Leadership is giving cover for Israel’s brutal war to continue,” Momentum, the main left-wing organization within the Labour Party, said in a statement. “Scratch the surface of this amendment and it falls well short of what the moment requires.”

On the day the vote was set to occur, Starmer managed to stave off a revolt by pressuring the speaker of the House of Commons into initiating a vote on Labour’s amendment first, a historic breach of parliamentary protocol; after the chamber’s Conservative and SNP members walked out in protest of the procedural break, the amendment passed, leading to the shelving of the original motion. The move saved leadership from learning the hard way whether their amendment had placated enough members, or whether many would still have felt compelled to vote for the SNP’s stronger call. “By forcing MPs into a binary choice on whether they actually support a ceasefire, the SNP threatened to expose Labour’s cowardly balancing act for what it is,” Alex Nunns, the speechwriter for Starmer’s socialist predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, told Jewish Currents. “Starmer unleashed the bully-boy tactics of Labour’s right wing in order to stop that from happening.”

The maneuver marked Starmer’s latest success at containing internal dissent over Israel’s war on Gaza, which is being investigated by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a genocide. Since October, his refusal to call without qualification for an immediate ceasefire—alongside official directives that everyone from Labour’s MPs all the way down to its local councilors must toe the party line and avoid pro-Palestine rallies—has sparked what commentators have called the “biggest rebellion” against his leadership to date. Prominent party figures like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and Anas Sarwar, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, have defiantly called for a ceasefire, while, on the local level, close to 100 councilors have resigned in protest, and over 300 have signed a public letter rebuking the party’s “failure to call for an end to violence.”

Though this challenge from the party’s left flank has caused Starmer some embarrassment, the fact that he has not faced a viable anti-war challenge from within Labour is a sign of how successfully he has remade the party in his own image. Since his election in 2020, he has systematically marginalized and suppressed the party’s left flank in an attempt to improve its electoral chances after 14 years of Conservative rule. “In his absolute determination to remove all obstacles to victory, Keir Starmer is more ruthless and competitive than any Labour leader I’ve ever seen,” Tom Baldwin, a former senior advisor to Starmer’s predecessor Ed Miliband, told The New York Times last year. Starmer has purged or disciplined some of the most prominent, senior members of the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG)—a traditional bastion of the Labour left—from the party, leaving backbench, or lower-ranking, MPs to mount internal opposition that leadership has easily brushed away. For example, a bill put forward in December by SCG co-chair Zarah Sultana, which called for the UK to halt arms sales to Israel, was supported by only 33 out of 198 Labour MPs and ignored by the party’s leadership altogether. “Under Starmer, the Labour Party has become a depressing and frustrating arena for those working on Palestine,” said Joseph Willits, the head of parliamentary affairs for the Council for Arab-British Understanding, an advocacy group that works closely with MPs.

Starmer’s effort to remake the party has been successful on its own terms: In the face of a broadly unpopular Tory government, Labour’s national prospects are indeed looking brighter. The party comfortably leads national polling ahead of the 2024 general election, and Starmer is regularly described in the press as the UK’s “prime minister-in-waiting.” With so much on the line, Starmer views grassroots support for a ceasefire as a threat to be carefully managed. “Starmer is not exercising his dominance over the party for nothing—he needs to show the establishment that Labour is a safe choice for its interests,” said James Schneider, former director of strategic communications for Labour under Corbyn and now communications director for the anti-imperialist advocacy group Progressive International. “Starmer has not lost control of Labour . . . However much pain he has absorbed [from popular dissent], it’s much less than he would feel if he broke with the US line on Israel.” A left-wing Labour insider—who spoke off the record due to fear of reprisal—also emphasized the extent of Starmer’s hold on the party. The fact that Starmer’s ascent continues despite “the biggest crisis of Starmer’s leadership so far,” they said, shows that he and his allies “have very successfully won control of the party, marginalized the left, and transformed who Labour serves and how.”

Long before the current rebellion over support for a ceasefire, the politics of Israel/Palestine had become the primary battleground in the fight for the Labour Party’s identity. Corbyn’s antagonistic posture toward Israel and his mismanagement of a string of anti-Jewish incidents fueled allegations of antisemitism that played a significant part in his downfall in 2019. This recent history armed Starmer to attack the left flank of the party. Prominent lawmakers who criticize Israel have been publicly reprimanded or even fired in the name of quashing antisemitism—even as MPs from Labour’s right wing go unpunished for antisemitic remarks about Jewish donors acting as “puppet masters” and Jewish businessmen suffering a “run on silver shekels” when they were passed over for spots in the House of Lords. At the same time, Labour has purged over 1,000 grassroots members for supposedly “minimizing” antisemitism under Corbyn, most of whom belonged to socialist and anti-imperialist formations within the party—and many of whom were themselves Jewish. (Starmer’s ideological allies have also weaponized party bureaucracy to refuse to hear the majority of these members’ appeals.) “The proportion of members who were expelled wasn’t large, but the effect was a disciplining and chilling one,” said Jamie Stern-Weiner, the editor of a book about Labour’s antisemitism crisis.

In order to decisively turn the page on the Corbyn era, Starmer has also cultivated alliances with pro-Israel groups. He won plaudits from Britain’s most prominent Jewish communal organizations, the right-wing Board of Deputies of British Jews and Jewish Leadership Council, after he suspended Corbyn from Labour in 2020. A recent investigation found that 40% of Starmer’s shadow cabinet have received donations from pro-Israel lobby groups. Even before Israel’s war on Gaza, these affinities had shaped Labour’s approach to policy. In July, Starmer and his allies declined to oppose a bill to ban organizations that receive public funding from participating in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel—despite concerns from civil liberties groups that the measure would set a dangerous precedent and broadly hamstring political speech. Labour ultimately allowed its members to vote against the legislation, but only after months of official party communications claiming that BDS had been used to “whip up hate against the Jewish people.” (The bill passed a Commons vote in January and is now being considered by the House of Lords.) David Feldman, the director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, explained that “Starmer is unwilling to challenge positions identified as antisemitic by the mainstream Jewish community, which have increasingly been redefined over the past 20 years to include anti-Zionism. This enables him to distance the party from Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, and to brand Labour as moderate.”

The imprimatur of these groups has complemented Starmer’s broader effort to push Labour to the right, emulating the party’s neoliberal turn under former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The UK’s Israel-advocacy groups have longstanding ties to Labour’s right flank, which only deepened as the Corbyn-era antisemitism crisis split the party along factional lines. The advocacy network Labour First, for example, is led by Luke Akehurst, who is also the director of the group WeBelieveInIsrael; Akehurst additionally serves on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC)—the body that determines the party’s policy priorities and candidate lists—and has called for the disqualification of candidates who do not endorse the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes some criticisms of Israel among its examples of anti-Jewish bigotry. The Blairite think tank Progressive Britain is led by Adam Langleben, who has also held roles with the conservative Jewish Leadership Council and the pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement. Morgan McSweeney, the strategist dubbed the “real power” behind Starmer’s rise, previously accepted undeclared funds from a pro-Israel lobbyist as chair of the right-wing think tank Labour Together; he now runs Starmer’s election strategy and oversees Labour’s candidate list, where he has reportedly pushed to quash the party’s left. “These groups are fundamentally politically aligned,” the left-wing Labour insider told Jewish Currents of the relationships between pro-Israel and Blairite groups. “Even the word ‘alliance’ separates them out too much—there’s a total overlap in personnel and in policy.”

With the support of these groups, Starmer has shored up a party platform that the majority of the British public can barely distinguish from that of the Conservative government. Indeed, he has refused to commit to reversing a suite of Conservative policies should he win the election, including the crushing imposition of fiscal austerity, the mounting privatization of the National Health Service, the increasingly draconian approach to immigration and asylum claims, and the punitive Public Order Act, which granted the police new powers to suppress public protest. To ensure parliamentary compliance with this ideological program, Starmer’s team has instrumentalized Labour’s bureaucracy, altering the NEC election process to secure their own majority, re-drawing constituencies (or districts) to pit senior centrist MPs against younger socialist colleagues, and blocking left-wing candidates from standing for election over what leadership deems “concerning” social media activity, including liking posts critical of Labour. On the foreign policy front, Starmer and his team have doubled down on Tony Blair’s “Atlanticism,” the belief that the US and Europe should be as closely aligned as possible. As Schneider points out, this marks a departure from Corbyn’s anti-imperialist Labour policy, but not from the party’s longer history on foreign affairs: “Labour’s policy is usually to tuck in behind the Conservatives, who tuck in behind the US,” he said.

Since October 7th, Starmer has indeed followed Washington’s line. At first, leadership also rigidly imposed it on Labour’s elected officials, warning councilors and MPs not to appear at ceasefire rallies. But the strength of public opposition—expressed in some of the largest demonstrations in British history, and in polling suggesting that 89% of Labour voters supported a ceasefire as early as October—quickly made leadership’s uncompromising approach untenable. In the run-up to the November ceasefire vote, in particular, “MPs really struggled with leadership backing Israel, because they needed to defend it to their constituents,” a Labour councilor told Jewish Currents. “If you talk to staff in their offices, they were getting more emails on the ceasefire vote than they did on Brexit. They were absolutely flooded.” Grassroots protests prompted two MPs closely associated with Starmer—John Cryer and Stella Creasy—to reverse their stances and vote yes on the November motion, while centrist MP Jess Phillips resigned from the shadow cabinet to “vote with my constituents, my head, and my heart.” In the wake of the vote, leadership disciplined only senior members who had defied orders, perhaps because suspending the 46 other renegade MPs would have decimated the party’s ranks. Leadership “got very spooked by public reaction,” said the left-wing councilor. “They bottled [their impulse to discipline members] under pressure from their own MPs, the public mood, and the scale of the demonstrations.”

But if Starmer was forced to show some leniency to those who bucked his orders in Parliament, he has taken a hard line with MPs whose public statements have the potential to alienate mainline Jewish groups. In a move that shocked the left wing of the party, leadership suspended socialist MP Andy McDonald on October 30th for calling, in a speech at a London ceasefire rally, for peace for both Israelis and Palestinians “between the river and the sea.” (Ten days earlier, three Jewish groups had asked authorities to clarify whether chanting the slogan “from the river to the sea” qualified as a criminal offense.) In January, socialist MP Kate Osamor was suspended for referring to “​​more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Gaza” when commemorating the Shoah’s Jewish victims on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Labour also withdrew support from two parliamentary candidates who criticized Israel. Feldman noted that of the four incidents, only the comments by one of the candidates could be viewed as antisemitic: The candidate, Azhar Ali, had claimed that Israel had foreknowledge of Hamas’s October 7th attack and decried McDonald’s suspension as the fault of “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters.” (The other parliamentary candidate, Graham Jones, was suspended for saying that British nationals who serve in the Israeli military “should be locked up.”) Nunns saw in these reprimands more evidence of Labour’s partisan pattern: “They respond ad hoc to pressure, but they still take every opportunity they have to attack the left,” he said.

Along with recalibrating their approach to MPs, Starmer and his allies have gradually shifted their own rhetoric. In October, Starmer insisted not only on Israel’s “right to defend itself,” but also on its right to withhold food, water, and medicine from the Gaza Strip as it conducted its bombing campaign. By early November, he was instead calling for “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s bombardment, and in December he followed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in vocally supporting moves toward a “sustainable ceasefire,” though without demanding that Israel stop its attacks. The ceasefire amendment that Labour leadership put forward in February marked a further attempt to square this circle, following other Western countries’ calls for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” while adding caveats that muddy its supposed message. Throughout, “Labour’s underlying position hasn’t changed, only the language used to dress it up,” Nunns told Jewish Currents. Schneider noted that Starmer’s incremental movement has never put him ahead of powerful allies. “Whenever Biden or Blinken say anything, both Starmer and Sunak feel they are permitted to change positions,” he said.

With the Labour Party inhospitable to pro-Palestine advocacy—and to left-wing politics in general—discontented activists and progressive voters have begun to look for other outlets. “When you have a leadership that is clamping down on any type of dissent, it is important to look outwards. There is more organizing happening on a cross-party basis, with trade unions, with local faith groups, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign,” says Tribune’s Taj Ali. At the local level, a rash of councilors have quit the party to stand as independents in protest of Starmer’s Gaza policy, causing Labour to lose its majority on the Oxford and Burnley councils, typical party strongholds. The party even lost an election in the east London council of Newham, where a former Labour member who resigned over the party’s ceasefire stance outflanked Labour on the left and won. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is said to be exploring the viability of a new protest party with an anti-war platform, while several local upstarts are running against pro-Israel MPs, campaigning specifically on the issue of Gaza. A new grassroots group called The Muslim Vote is likewise working to punish MPs who voted against a ceasefire, organizing the large share of Muslim voters who say in polling that they will not vote for Labour again. “People are talking to some independent candidates and donating serious amounts of money to help them run against the Labour party,” one MP told The Guardian. “I’ve never known this level of funding and organization. The anger is off the scale. We have to do so much to get those communities back on side. They want to teach the Labour party a lesson.”

Given Starmer’s commanding lead over the Conservative Party, it remains highly unlikely that these insurgent measures will fatally undermine his electoral prospects. But Willits, who works closely with the party’s MPs on policy related to Palestine, says that Labour’s response to Gaza will have long-term consequences. “With Labour riding high in the polls because they’re not the Tories, it’s easy to dismiss Gaza as politically irrelevant, but in this whole debacle, political allies and other wings of the party have been ignored, and huge chunks of the electorate have been alienated,” he said. “Starmer has opened himself up to future challenges over his moral authority.” In the nearer term, Ali warns that the fight between Labour’s constituents and the party’s leadership serves as a preview of the government to come. “His handling of the insurgency within Labour gives us a taste of how Starmer plans to run the country,” he said, “with utter disdain for democracy and mass representation.”

This piece has been updated to clarify the events that led to Corbyn’s downfall in 2019.

Dahlia Krutkovich is a former Jewish Currents fellow. She is currently on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.

Jonathan Shamir is a Jewish Currents fellow and the former deputy editor of Haaretz.