A general election is expected in less than a year. Sir Keir Starmer recently overturned two massive majorities to win crucial by-elections. Opinion polls place his party a solid 20 points ahead of the Tories.
But yesterday, instead of savouring the tantalising aroma of power, Labour activists were busy trying to stage an online insurrection.
The hysterical hashtag ‘StarmerOutNOW’ was trending on X, formerly known as Twitter, as Corbynite ideologues united to vent their fury at the party leadership.
What had sparked this latest Leftie tantrum was, inevitably, Starmer’s robust stance on Israel in the wake of Hamas‘s barbaric attacks earlier this month.
On Monday in the Commons, he defended Israel’s ‘right to defend herself’ with adamantine clarity, defying calls from sections of his own party for a ‘ceasefire’.
Sir Keir told presenter Nick Ferrari on LBC radio that Israel ‘does have that right’ to cut off water and power to the Gaza Strip
Two weeks ago, the Labour leader had gone further still, telling LBC radio that Israel ‘does have that right’ to cut off water and power to the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas’s attacks. (Labour later suggested his remarks had been misconstrued.)
But, while Starmer’s position on the conflict is pretty clear, the truth is that there is a deep split within the Labour party on the question of Israel — and has been for a long time.
The party that remains the favourite to win the next election is hopelessly divided when it comes to one basic question: Are you on the side of a free democracy trying to defend itself against a genocidal enemy, or do you waver and say, well, it’s complicated?
At least 23 Labour councillors have resigned the whip in response to Starmer’s stance on the conflict. Some 72 have written him an ‘open letter’ saying they had lost confidence in him as leader.
In a separate statement, six Oxford councillors wrote: ‘This is a direct threat to our democratic rights.
‘We no longer feel we can serve as Labour councillors… in a choice between serving our parties or justice, we have chosen justice.’
In Parliament, more than one in six Labour MPs has now called on Israel to stop its bombing campaign against Hamas — a military action aimed squarely at killing the terror group’s murderous zealots while minimising civilian casualties.
Everyone wants to see peace in the region, but a ceasefire now would give Hamas the opportunity to prepare another incursion into Israeli territory, slaughtering grandmothers and babies once again.
Only this week, Rishi Sunak publicly reminded Corbyn in the Commons that he once described the butchers of Hamas as ‘friends’
Richard Burgon tabled a motion that dispensed with Hamas’s atrocities in a mere 13 words, and spent the next 200 words condemning Israel
Corbyn’s ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell attended a pro-Palestine fringe event at Labour Party conference (Pictured: John McDonnell speaks to the pro-Palestine rally held last weekend in central London)
Yet this simple fact seems to elude the 36 Labour MPs who backed a Parliamentary motion tabled last week by the ultra-Left MP Richard Burgon. (You may remember him as the Corbynista who once averred that ‘Zionism is the enemy of peace’ and then denied having done so until proof emerged that he had.)
Burgon’s motion dispensed with Hamas’s atrocities in a mere 13 words, and spent the next 200 words condemning Israel, the victim of those attacks.
Such double-standards, of course, are of a piece with Labour’s Corbynista faction.
Corbyn himself may now suffer the indignity of sitting as an independent in the Commons after Starmer kicked him out of the party for claiming, in a moment of genuine disgrace, that reports of anti-Semitism in the party had been ‘dramatically overstated’.
But though he is no longer in Labour, the bearded Marxist remains a godlike figure to activists — and his ubiquitous presence at pro-Palestine rallies, to say nothing of his cult-like following on social media, are deeply unwelcome to the leadership.
Corbyn was kicked him out of the party for claiming, in a moment of genuine disgrace, that reports of anti-Semitism in the party had been ‘dramatically overstated’
Tom Harris was a Labour member for 34 years, 14 of them as an MP, including as a minister
Only this week, Rishi Sunak publicly reminded Corbyn in the Commons that he once described the butchers of Hamas as ‘friends’. (Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy particularly relished this barb.)
Corbyn’s ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell — who attended a pro-Palestine fringe event at Labour Party conference — was another signatory to Burgon’s motion, as was long-term Leftist Barry Gardiner.
But other names were more surprising — and it is abundantly clear that Labour’s issues with Israel run deeper.
I have long been aware of this: I was a Labour member for 34 years, 14 of them as an MP, including as a minister. But, in the Commons, I frequently came across a stubborn refusal to recognise the real dangers of Islamism.
One fellow MP even refused to acknowledge to me that extreme Islamism posed any kind of threat to our way of life, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Labour MPs who refuse to condemn Hamas and to support Israel, our natural ally, bring shame on their party.
The Blairite Sir Stephen Timms added his name to Burgon’s motion — even though he himself was a victim of Islamist terrorism in 2010
It concerns me deeply that several apparently moderate Labour MPs are also failing to fall on the right side in a straightforward battle against evil. The Blairite Sir Stephen Timms added his name to Burgon’s motion — even though he himself was a victim of Islamist terrorism in 2010, when he was stabbed during a constituency surgery by an attacker wielding a six-inch kitchen knife.
While his London constituency of East Ham has a large minority Muslim electorate, at least 31 Labour MPs represent constituencies with a majority of Muslim voters, including firebrand Deputy Leader Angela Rayner and shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liz Kendall.
For now at least, Starmer knows he is in a strong position — and he is willing to face down the elements of his party urging a ‘ceasefire’.
He understands, too, that he still has work to do repairing the disastrous anti-Semitism of the Corbyn years. Taking a robust line on Israel, in its hour of need, is right politically as well as morally.
But the splits in Labour are not going away. Two or three years from now, under a future Starmer government, it is easy to envision a cacophony of anti-Israel voices growing to a screeching crescendo.
For now at least, Starmer knows he is in a strong position — and he is willing to face down the elements of his party urging a ‘ceasefire’
If large numbers of Labour backbenchers are implacably opposed to the actions of Israel, if every effort made by the Israeli Defence Forces to protect its citizens is condemned by government MPs as ‘war crimes’, how could a Labour foreign secretary do his or her job?
These splits go beyond mere policy. They could have dire implications for Britain’s security and our place in the world.
Tom Harris is former Labour MP for Glasgow South and was a transport minister from 2006 to 2008.