Why does Keir Starmer refuse to call for an immediate ceasefire?
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Friday December 22 2023
Sir Keir Starmer has consistently maintained his support for Israel and his refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Since his interview with LBC on 11 October 2023, Starmer has repeated his support for Israel’s right to “self-defence” in face of the increasing devastation of Gaza and its population. Despite divisions within the party and increasing public and international pressure, Starmer continues to resist calls to back a ceasefire, instead offering his support for “humanitarian pauses”.
The Palestinian death toll now exceeds 20,000, with over 85% of Gaza’s population displaced, widespread disease and starvation, and the extensive destruction of homes and key infrastructure. In what is clearly the collective punishment of Palestinians perpetrated by the Israeli government and its forces, Starmer, a human rights barrister, refuses to condemn Israel’s violation of international humanitarian law and places the responsibility of the mass death and destruction of Gaza on Hamas.
Starmer recently joined the UK government in calling for a “sustainable ceasefire” which maintains their pro-Israeli position on the crisis and clarifies their opposition to an immediate end of Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. Starmer’s echoing of the government position and refusal to back an immediate ceasefire is in large part about projecting an image of a party that is ready for government. In maintaining his position, Starmer is presenting Labour as a party, and future government, of stability and moderation, particularly following Corbyn’s leadership and this present chaotic Conservative government.
Starmer’s consistent support for Israel is partly informed by his desire to distance Labour from its past with Corbyn and the problem of antisemitism. In the fallout of Corbyn’s leadership, Starmer has attempted to reassert the party’s historic pro-Israel credentials for which his sustained support for Israel seeks to keep the pro-Israel lobby on side. For example, Labour has strengthened its relationship with the pro-Israel lobby group, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), of which over half of Starmer’s shadow cabinet are listed as parliamentary supporters and from whom many have received funding. During a speech for LFI, Starmer attacked opposition to Zionism as antisemitic, a statement criticised by a number of left-wing Jewish activists as philosemitic. Since assuming leadership of Labour in 2020, Starmer has been vocal in his desire to remove the “stain” of antisemitism the party acquired under Corbyn. Giving little attention to allegations of Islamophobia within the party, Starmer has committed to implementing antisemitism reforms of the Labour party. As part of this drive, Starmer has strove to purge Labour of any remnants of Corbyn which he reaffirmed when he proclaimed that Corbyn’s “days as a Labour MP are over”. Starmer’s position on the Gaza crisis is not only to appease the pro-Israel lobby but is part of Starmer’s remaking of the Labour party, moving it towards the political centre as a party of moderation in specific contrast to the previous image of Labour and the current Conservative government.
The remaking of the Labour party and Starmer’s position on the Gaza crisis can also be seen as offering an alternative to the current Conservative government. Starmer’s recent article in praise of Margaret Thatcher has been perceived as part of an attempt to win over Conservative voters. At the same time, his position on the Gaza crisis has mirrored the Conservative government and maintained a middle ground despite internal and public pressure to deflect. Since Starmer’s tenure as Labour leader, a number of major corporate donors have resumed and even increased their donations to the party, while a number of Tory defectors have joined them. His move to the political centre, removal of left-wingers as parliamentary candidates and fond reminiscence of past Conservatives’ glory days have also seen some softening of the right-wing media towards him and will also appeal to left-leaning Conservative voters. In mirroring the government position and refusing to back a ceasefire, Starmer is offering a moderate Labour not far from the Conservative mould and seeking to secure a powerful and wider support base in the run-up to elections.
Starmer’s refusal to call for a ceasefire is also guided by a reluctance to step out of line with US policy as he looks forward to greater UK-US ties under a Labour government. In keeping with US policy, days after the US announced travel bans on “extremist Israeli settlers”, the Labour party followed suit to announce the same. Starmer himself has said that working with international allies to free hostages and push for humanitarian pauses is “what you would expect from someone who wants to form the next government”. In the last year, a number of Labour shadow cabinet ministers have made visits to Washington to make clear that, if elected, the new Labour government intends to strengthen the relationship between the UK and USA, particularly on foreign policy. As previous Labour governments and the US administration have enjoyed a close relationship and UK-US relations have seen some strain under the present conservative government, Labour seeks to repair and reinforce this relationship. In matching the US position on the crisis in Gaza and foreign policy, Starmer is demonstrating how a Labour government will renew and foster international relations with one of the UK’s closest allies.
Throughout the Gaza crisis, Starmer has matched the position of the UK government and the Biden administration in the USA, maintaining the political middle ground so as not to upset his powerful support base of pro-Israeli lobbyists and corporate donors, while at the same time seeking to secure the approval of the right-wing media and Conservative voters. In what he sees as the turbulent years of Labour under Corbyn and an incapable Conservative government, Starmer has seized the opportunity to refashion and present Labour as the party of moderation and stability the nation needs, offering a new approach to politics and seeking to undo the damage of conservative rule.
His refusal to back a ceasefire in Gaza is therefore guided by a longer-term strategy of winning an election to secure a future Labour government of Britain which is “progressive except for Palestine”. Starmer has shown his true colours in this conflict – a pro-Zionist leader who has been fully supportive of Israel’s war crimes and genocidal killing. He has shown total contempt and indifference to Palestinian suffering. The electorate will not forget.