There are currently 198 Labour MPs in the House of Commons. On Wednesday, 56 of them backed a Scottish National party amendment calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, and directly defying the party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who wanted his MPs to abstain and back a policy of humanitarian pauses. Eight Labour frontbenchers joined the revolt – they either resigned their posts or were sacked.
Compared with the war itself, the Westminster vote was a footnote. It was manifestly designed by the SNP to embarrass its rival party. But take the Labour rebellion seriously all the same. It was a big revolt on a big issue, the worst that this Labour leader has suffered. More than a quarter of Labour MPs took part, in spite of a protracted effort by Sir Keir and his aides. If Labour returns to power, divisions of this kind would be likely to affect party management on foreign policy, just as they did in the past over Iraq and Syria.
Taking a rebel stand is not easy for Labour MPs. This is the pre-election parliamentary session, the polls show the party is closing in on a return to government, and Labour minds are overwhelmingly concentrated on presenting a united face to the electorate. But there is always more than one imperative in politics. Sir Keir’s priority is to show that he and Labour are ready for power. This does not obliterate the imperative that many MPs also feel to their consciences and to their voters.
Labour has a long history of conscience-driven divisions on international issues. Wednesday’s rebellion stands in that tradition. Its supporters covered a wide spectrum. Yet Labour does not seem anxious to do battle with its leader over this issue. Sir Keir should reciprocate. He has managed to keep the shadow cabinet together so far. This is a good sign. There should be a way back for those more junior frontbenchers who revolted. Unbending leadership is not good leadership.
Most voters understand that the issues in the Israel-Hamas war are difficult. They get that politicians are having to make agonising judgments as events have moved forward since the original murderous assaults by Hamas. The suffering of Gaza’s civilians and the more than 200 Israeli hostages, as well as the threats to Israel’s security and to regional stability, are constantly evolving and must all be considered. So must the inevitable churn of domestic public opinion in Britain.
The Labour leader has not always done this well. He was right to denounce Hamas unequivocally at the outset. But his LBC interview on 11 October, saying Israel had the right to withhold water and power from Gaza, was wrong. He was then too slow to correct what he said. His Chatham House speech, which attempted this, was given nearly three weeks ago now. Events have continued to unfold, and both the government and the opposition need to respond.
With the conflict approaching its seventh week, pressure has grown for the fighting to reduce and then end. Wednesday’s Commons vote reflects this. The case for a ceasefire sooner rather than later has grown and continues to grow. Though it is obviously not easy for an opposition leader, Sir Keir should be proactive. He should try to get ahead of events with ideas and initiatives of his own, including international ones. That may not prevent another rebellion. But it would engage with the anguish that so many so understandably feel at present. It is what a national leader should do.