With the next British general election rapidly approaching, the global crisis over the war in Gaza could provide the beleaguered Conservative Party a much-needed boost to its electoral fortunes.
After Hamas launched its devastating attack against Israel on 7 October, a deep political divide arose between the Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who immediately pledged his administration to support Israel’s military response to the attack, and the opposition Labour party, under the leadership of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who is more conflicted about how to deal with the issue.
While Sir Keir initially followed Sunak’s lead by giving his backing to Israel’s right to self-defence, other leading members of the Labour Party have proved less supportive, with many prominent Labour politicians accusing Israel of collective punishment and calling for a ceasefire.
The deep tensions in the Labour Party broke into the open after Starmer gave an interview to LBC radio’s interviewer Nick Ferrari.
The broadcaster asked the Labour leader if “a siege — cutting off power, cutting off water” to Gaza was a proportionate response to the massacre by Hamas on 7 October. Civilians in Gaza have been dying in their thousands. Necessities – food, water, fuel, medicines – are in critically short supply.
“Yes,” Starmer said, Israel did have the right to defend itself. Having banished the spectre of anti-Semitism under former leader Jeremy Corbyn from his party, he wasn’t about to offer a hostage to fortune before a general election.
Starmer suspended Corbyn from the Labour Party after a damning official report into anti-Semitism in the Labour party in October 2020.
The equalities watchdog found that the party was guilty of “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination” involving anti-Semitism during Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Furthermore, in 2009, Mr Corbyn had called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” during a meeting in parliament.
But Starmer’s response in the LBC interview badly misjudged the depth of feeling in the party at the plight of ordinary Gazans — especially among British Muslims.
Labour’s metro-mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, both running cities – London and Manchester respectively – with large Muslim populations, broke ranks and called for a ceasefire.
So did the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Anas Sarwar, who, like his SNP rival, the Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf, has family in Gaza.