Labour’s Israel revolt shows it is too divided for power

Nothing shows the true calibre of a leader like a crisis. For example, Boris Johnson silenced his critics with his relentless defence of Ukraine, galvanising the free world in support of the Ukrainian people against Russia’s illegal invasion.

Sir Keir Starmer is keen for any opportunity to pose as a statesman, which is why he could not be prouder to schmooze Emmanuel Macron recently as well as Justin Trudeau.

He has worked hard over the last few years to make Labour electable, most notably by kicking out Jeremy Corbyn and purging the party’s ranks of anti-Semites.

However, the Israel-Hamas war has plunged Labour into turmoil as Sir Keir tries to find a clear position to take.

Initially, Sir Keir showed robust support for Israel’s right to defend itself and rejected calls for a ceasefire. But his fellow comrades are increasingly in open revolt, with more than 60 MPs defying his authority by calling for a ceasefire, including 15 members of his own frontbench.

These rebels have been joined by 250 councillors, Labour mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, as well as its leader in Scotland Anas Sarwar.

No party can be taken seriously by the public unless their leader can be expected to give the line they agree on. Otherwise, it is little more than a debating society, where representatives are free to air whatever is on their mind.

That is why collective responsibility is vital, especially for Labour in its bid to position itself as a party which is ready for government.

It is also why Sir Keir had to try and stamp his authority this week with a keynote speech making the case for his approach. He made clear repeatedly afterwards that collective responsibility “matters”.

Keir Starmer says ceasefire in Gaza isn’t ‘correct position’

So what does this mean for the rebels defying the Labour leader’s line? Next to nothing.

No one will be sacked or reprimanded, which suggests Sir Keir and his team worry that they would be left with a pretty bare frontbench if they did so.

That is why frontbenchers continue to openly contradict the Labour leader, such as Afzal Khan – who said Israel’s offensive was “unconscionable” and called afresh for a ceasefire.

Loyalists are trying to put a brave face on this, with Liz Kendall telling media that Labour will “continue to engage with all our representatives” and Sir Keir “wants to continue to listen”.

Oddly, some frontbenchers are already dangling the prospect of a U-turn before Labour has had time to properly chew over Sir Keir’s argument. As Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Philippson put it to Radio 5: “We don’t believe that a ceasefire now is the approach, that’s not to say we won’t get to that position.”

Foreign affairs can be complex, but that is no excuse for Labour’s struggle to have a clear approach on a critical issue like this. It was neatly encapsulated by the fact that Sir Keir only moved to suspend a Labour MP for his comments to a pro-Palestine rally after Rishi Sunak sacked a member of his administration for calling for a ceasefire. 

This isn’t the first time Sir Keir and his Labour comrades have sought to try and fudge their way through a tricky subject.

We cannot forget Labour’s ever-changing position over Brexit, which culminated in a torturous mess. In short, they ended up pledging to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s withdrawal deal and then to put to deal to another referendum – only to stay neutral on whether it was worth voting for.

To be fair, that was the only way Jeremy Corbyn could keep the peace between outspoken Remainers like Sir Keir and those who wanted to respect the result.

Sir Keir has not been averse to instilling party discipline as leader, sacking a shadow minister for defying orders not to attend a rail picket line. He explained afterwards that “we need collective responsibility, as any organisation does.”

But now, Sir Keir is shying away from taking on the rebels for fear of plunging Labour into outright anarchy. Yet even his shadow cabinet colleagues cannot pretend he is demonstrating strong leadership.

If this is how Sir Keir manages a crisis in Opposition, one can only imagine how he would fare if he becomes Prime Minister.

What we know for sure is the British people will want a decisive leader, not the chair of a woke debating society, in charge.

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