Labour looks certain to form the next government, but many voters are appalled by the party’s stance on Gaza.

Tiernan Cannon

It has become an oft-repeated phrase: “most of them women and children.” In the wake of every fresh atrocity committed against the Palestinians during Israel’s war on Gaza, we are informed of the number of dead, and the term duly follows — “most of them women and children.” At the time of writing more than 37,700 people have been killed, “most of them women and children.”

This is not to downplay the murder of Palestinian men, but there is a particular emotional resonance when we learn of children and their mothers being deliberately targeted for slaughter. It goes against the most basic standards of how we agree war should be conducted. It is a moral abomination.

The British public knows this. According to YouGov polling, 56% want to see Britain cut off its supply of arms to Israel as the war on Gaza rages. Only 20% oppose the measure. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to demand a ceasefire, while students across the country have occupied their campuses to demand their universities divest from Israel. It shouldn’t be forgotten that all of this has occurred despite profound mainstream media bias in favour of Israel.

The effort to dehumanise Palestinians is failing, as, thanks to new and alternative media sources, we have witnessed the destruction of Gaza in real-time. Despite reports of the censoring of pro-Palestine perspectives, social media has given a voice to besieged Gazans, whose posts documenting their lives have plainly illustrated the one-sided, brutal nature of this war. The “All eyes on Rafah” image has been shared on Instagram millions of times, drawing users’ attention to the dire conditions and terrible bombardments that those trapped in refugee camps there have endured.

People in Britain have, for many months now, observed Israel ceaselessly commit atrocity after atrocity. They increasingly understand that the people of Gaza face annihilation, yet this is hardly an understanding reflected by the country’s political class, which, as it gears up for the coming election, largely turns its back on the horror.

While the foreign secretary, David Cameron, has suggested that the UK may recognise the State of Palestine, the Conservative Party has generally thrown its weight behind Israel. The government repeatedly reiterates the country’s “right to defend itself” and the arms trade between the two nations continues, though there have been some dissenting voices among the Tories calling for its end. 

That the Tories largely support Israel is hardly a surprise — a third of their MPs have reportedly accepted funding from pro-Israel lobby groups — but what of Labour, which, according to the polls, looks certain to form the next government?

A number of Labour MPs, too, receive funding from the Israel lobby, while the party’s leadership has repeatedly been supportive of Israeli atrocities. In an interview with LBC at the start of the war, the likely prime minister-in-waiting, Keir Starmer, was asked whether or not “cutting off power, cutting off water” from the people of Gaza was a legitimate tactic for Israel to pursue. “I think that Israel does have that right,” he replied.

Starmer later tried to roll back on his comments, acknowledging that they had caused “real concern and distress in some Muslim communities.” It wasn’t enough to prevent a string of Labour councillors, many of whom are Muslim, from resigning from the party.

Since then, Starmer has repeatedly shown that he will place politics over morality when it comes to Gaza. In line with the Tories, he initially refused to back a ceasefire and his stance only changed many months into the bloodshed — and even this was handled appallingly.

When, in February 2024, the Scottish National Party put forward a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, both the Conservatives and Labour posited their own watered-down amendments. Up to 100 Labour MPs reportedly planned to support the stronger SNP motion, which would have been a clear rebuttal of Starmer’s position. Starmer responded by personally lobbying the Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, into breaking with precedent and allowing Labour’s motion to be debated before the SNP’s one.

Hoyle relented, leading, in the end, to the Labour motion passing and several SNP and Tory MPs walking out of the House of Commons. Starmer had stemmed a rebellion from within his own party, but at the expense of the SNP motion calling for an “end to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” The bodies in Gaza, meanwhile, continued to pile up.

Labour’s stance has begun to shift in recent months, with the party recently pledging to recognise Palestinian statehood. But the sluggishness with which the party has acted will not be forgotten by the public, which largely considers Starmer’s handling of the Gaza issue as a failure. Even Margaret Thatcher imposed an arms embargo on Israel in 1982, after it invaded neighbouring Lebanon, while Tony Blair enacted a partial ban on weapons exports during the Second Intifada. Starmer has so far shown little sign of taking such a strong stance against Israel, though pressure is growing.

We have already glimpsed the potential electoral consequences of the Labour leader’s callousness. Despite a generally strong showing for the party at the local elections in early May, it saw significant losses in areas home to large Muslim populations. According to a survey conducted by Will Jennings, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton, in areas where more than 20% of the electorate is Muslim, the Labour vote fell on average by nearly 18%. It is conceivable that this trend may continue into the general election.

Young people, too, may think twice about voting for Labour. Polling has suggested that the youth turnout in 2024 may prove to be historically low, but, of those who do show up, it is possible that some may turn away from the party.

Anyone disillusioned by Labour’s response to Gaza may offer their votes to pro-Palestine parties or independents, or, indeed, they may not vote at all. Both the Green Party and George Galloway’s economically left-wing but socially conservative Workers Party of Britain are stronger when it comes to Palestine, while independents running on an explicitly pro-Palestine platform may also prove a threat. Faiza Shaheen, for one, is standing as an independent candidate after being deselected by Labour for liking social media posts that were critical of Israel. Shaheen, in turn, claimed that she had experienced “a systematic campaign of racism, Islamophobia and bullying from some within the party.”

Labour’s mishandling of the Gaza issue could drive some voters away and damage the party’s chances of sealing a majority, but, in truth, this election is unlikely to be decided on Gaza alone. People are in crisis throughout the UK, and the prospect of another term of Tory misrule is intolerable to most. Starmer looks likely to benefit from that.

In government, though, the expectations on Labour will be stronger than when it sat in opposition. If the slaughter of Palestinian men, women, and children continues throughout Prime Minister Starmer’s tenure, and if he fails to respond in a meaningful way, he risks alienating a public that is increasingly dismayed by what is happening to innocent people — “most of them women and children.”

Even Tony Blair, a far more popular leader than Starmer, took a political hit in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. There is a lesson there: the British people do not support the slaughter of civilians. Should Starmer fail to heed that lesson, he may find that his hold over the Labour Party, and the country it rules over, is weaker than he thought.

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Last Update: June 14, 2024