‘After the locals, Labour must show on Gaza it truly understands voter anger’

Richard Burden
Below the Sky / Shutterstock.

Labour says it will listen to its supporters’ concerns over Gaza. Now it must show it understands what that means.

By any measure, Labour did exceptionally well in the local elections, nowhere more famously than in my own region, where Labour’s Richard Parker oh so narrowly defeated Conservative incumbent, Andy Street, to become Mayor of the West Midlands.

Street had established a reputation for himself that transcended traditional party loyalties and had consciously played down his Conservative affiliations ahead of the election.

It was widely expected that he would hang on even if there was a the melt down in public support for his party more generally. it was not to be. Even his reputation could not survive the anti-Tory surge that swept the country.

Without a rival campaigning on Gaza, Labour would have won in the West Midlands more comfortably

But amongst the celebrations in the Labour camp of which I am a member, the recent elections also require a pause for thought and self-reflection.

In the West Midlands, an independent candidate campaigning on a platform starkly critical of Labour’s stance on Gaza secured nearly 70,000 votes. Without his intervention, it is likely that Richard Parker would have won much more comfortably.

Gaza also lost Labour a number of council seats previously thought to be safe in towns like Oldham and probably prevented Labour winning some key marginal council seats elsewhere in the North.

Labour says it is determined to win voters’ trust

To his credit, in celebrating his party’s success last week, Sir Keir Starmer has not sought to deny the impact that anger over Labour’s Gaza stance has had. He has said that he is listening and that he is determined to win back the trust of voters who usually vote Labour but who do not feel able to do so with things as they are.

The ”we are listening” message from Labour’s leader and other senior Party figures in recent days has been in welcome contrast to the briefing given by “a party source” to the BBC before the votes were counted.

The source claimed that Hamas would have been “the real villains” if Labour failed to win the mayoralty in the West Midlands. Rightly, that kind of dismissal of Muslim and other voters’ concerns about the bloodshed in Gaza was widely condemned as both unacceptable and downright racist.

Labour was also quick to distance itself from the anonymous “source”, and rightly so. However, the fact that an experienced BBC journalist could have thought that views like these might indeed have reflected the thinking of Labour’s high command underlines at best how badly Labour has communicated its position on Gaza.

At worst it may even suggest that there are one or two senior Labour figures who do harbour views like these.

Political principle or political positioning?

All of this begs the question about just how Labour intends to “listen” and about what is required to win back the trust as Starmer has declared himself determined to do.

The first thing is that the listening must be real. British Muslim communities and many more of all faiths and of none are genuinely horrified by what is going on in Gaza. Their horror does not suggest they have any sympathy for Hamas or its actions.

Rather, they are outraged by a military onslaught that has already killed over 34,000 human beings, most of them women and children, and which is bringing famine to many more.

They may not have the legal expertise that has led the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to conclude that there is a plausible case that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

But they know from what they see on their TV screens that atrocities are taking place which look like crimes against humanity.

They cannot understand how Labour can have been so slow to call for an immediate ceasefire, and how Labour’s leaders have so often been reluctant to condemn Israel’s actions without equivocation over the past seven months.

Labour’s ceasefire position has improved, but a ‘safety first’ policy can end up far from safe

In fairness, Labour’s position has improved a lot since the start of 2024. The Party now backs an immediate ceasefire.

It calls for the unrestricted delivery of humanitarian aid and for the restoration of UK funding for UNRWA. It asserts that international mechanisms of legal accountability, such as the ICJ and International Criminal Court (ICC) must be respected. In short, Labour’s policies are well ahead of those of the Conservative government.

All too often, though, the way Labour’s policies are expressed comes over as calibrated political positioning about what it feels safe to say ahead of a General Election rather than being an expression of principle rooted in its political soul.

Paradoxically, this “safety first” approach can end up being anything but safe. When asked in a disastrous interview with LBC last October whether Israel had the right to cut off food and water to Palestinians in Gaza, Sir Keir replied that Israel “does have that right”.

He later said that he meant that Israel had the right to self-defence after the murderous Hamas attack on October 7, not that he meant that Israel has the right to commit war crime by starving a civilian population.

I think the former is indeed probably what he meant. I also suspect the fact that he felt obliged to be so repetitively “on message” about that meant he missed the precise question he was asked on an issue that was already an outrage to thousands of listeners.

They had already heard Israel ministers declare that food and water to Gaza would indeed be cut off. Unsurprisingly they wanted to know what the Labour leader thought about it and they were astonished by his response.

Whether or not he “misspoke” to LBC, if Keir Starmer’s comment itself was not bad enough, it was compounded by the fact that he took several days to publicly clarify what he had meant to say. That, in turn was made worse by Labour frontbenchers had already been dispatched onto the airwaves in the meantime to defend what their Leader had said during the LBC interview.

Keir’s LBC interview and Labour’s rejection of an SNP ceasefire motion are what have cut through

The political requirement to maintain a united front apparently trumped everything else – including making clear that Labour does not excuse war crimes.

As far as I know, Keir Starmer has also never apologised for his misspeak or acknowledged that he understands the depth of anger it generated. Little surprise, therefore, that far more people remember Keir Starmer’s original words during the interview than his later attempts to clarify them.

Another event where political positioning designed to reinforce Labour’s standing actually achieved the opposite came in February this year when the party insisted on trying to amend rather than support an SNP motion calling on the House of Commons to back an immediate ceasefire.

By then Labour had belatedly declared its support for a ceasefire and its amendment did include both that support and other important elements that did not feature in the original wording tabled by the SNP.

But very few people outside parliament heard any of that.

Against the background of its refusal to back a ceasefire for so long, it looked like Labour was trying to water down the SNP’s ceasefire call. When the debate then descended to an unseemly wrangle over parliamentary procedure, it just made matters worse.

The fact that a Labour amendment calling for a ceasefire in Gaza ended up being passed by the House of Commons did not leave the Party with any credit. In fact its standing was further diminished. And it could have all been avoided if Labour had simply voted for the SNP motion rather than being too clever by half in seeking to take it over and change it.

Labour is trying not to ‘frighten the horses’

The second thing that Labour must understand is that its political positioning over Gaza all too often looks like double standards.

 Labour was right to immediately express its utter abhorrence of the Hamas attack on October 7. That was important not only because the attack was a war crime in itself. It was also important because the familial, cultural and national bonds that Jews in Britain feel with Israel mean that they experienced the massacres of October 7th in ways that are both intensely visceral and personal.

Labour’s response was therefore not simply a political condemnation of an international outrage. It was an expression of Labour empathy and solidarity with Britain’s Jewish communities in response to October 7. Labour’s open demonstration that it too felt the pain of Jews in the UK was powerful, not least against the background of allegations of antisemitism in the Party in recent years.

The empathy with the people of Israel in the immediate aftermath of October 7 has continued in the months that have followed, with Party commentary on the carnage taking place in Gaza or the accelerated settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank still usually prefixed by re-statements of Labour’s condemnation of Hamas. Demands for the immediate release of hostages have also remained unconditional and unequivocal, and rightly so.

Unfortunately, the contrast with the way Labour leaders have responded to Palestinian suffering has been stark. It is not that Labour figures are unconcerned about the horrific scenes coming out of Gaza any more than anyone else is. It is about something else.

A friend of mine put her finger on the contrast when she observed that, while the party demonstrates empathy with the suffering of Israelis, when it comes to the suffering of Palestinians, the empathy turns to sympathy.

Not only does the sympathy feel one-stage removed from the suffering itself but it also comes over as keeping one cautious eye on what the Party thinks won’t “frighten the horses” in Britain ahead of a General Election, and another on what might be acceptable to a US administration that the Party hopes will be the international partner of a Labour Government by the end of this year.

The domestic “horses” that Labour’s leaders are worried about are those in the media and elsewhere who have shown themselves only too willing to equate unambiguous condemnation of the actions of Israel’s government with antisemitism.

Labour may not make that same equation but party strategists are conscious of the reputational damage that can be done to them by those who do. So they tone down official Labour statements to try to minimise the risk – even at the price of being reluctant to call out war crimes in Palestine with the clarity the party demonstrates about such crimes in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Indeed, Labour has even suspended some of its own MPs for speaking out about Israel’s actions in terms very similar to those used by respected human rights groups and even by the International Court of Justice.

Labour should back a ban on arms exports

Whilst laying the groundwork for a close relationship with the USA is an understandable diplomatic imperative for a Labour government in waiting, too often Labour looks like it is unwilling to do much more than echo US policy pronouncements in relation to Israel and Palestine. In fact. Labour in opposition has been more timid about this than some of the USA’s international partners in have been in – the President of France being just one example.

Put together, the public is left with the impression that Labour is motivated by political positioning rather than principle, with the rights of Palestinians featuring as just one of the political calculations to factor in, rather than their being just as important to the Party’s political soul as the rights of Israelis.

So if Labour really is determined to rebuild trust, it must show that it hears as well as listens. That has to mean changes both in its policy positions on Israel and Palestine and in the narrative it brings to the issue.

In relation to policy, Labour’s support for an immediate ceasefire is a start, albeit a belated one. It must now be followed by a commitment to end UK complicity with the ongoing bloodshed by banning arms exports. UK recognition of the State of Palestine as a commitment for an incoming Labour government, not simply as an aspiration, would also demonstrate that Labour regards Israelis and Palestinians are equals in practice, not simply in theory.

As for our narrative, if Labour want people to believe us when say we are listening to their concerns about Gaza, we need to show that we mean it ourselves. It requires the humility to demonstrate understanding of why so many people are angry about the tone of Labour’s approach so far, not simply an insistence that that the party has been misunderstood.

And it means rediscovering a commitment to human rights and international law that is unambiguous and universal, not one that is conditioned by political positioning ahead of an election.

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