Starmer meets Muslim MPs amid anger over Gaza position

Labour sources described the meeting, which was attended by around a dozen MPs including at least one frontbencher, as ‘constructive’.

Dominic McGrath
Wednesday 25 October 2023 16:09 BST
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer Sir Keir Starmer has met a group of Muslim Labour MPs to discuss his position on the Gaza situation (James Manning/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer Sir Keir Starmer has met a group of Muslim Labour MPs to discuss his position on the Gaza situation (James Manning/PA)

Sir Keir Starmer has met Muslim Labour MPs as he sought to see off a backlash over his on position on Israel and Gaza.

Labour sources described the meeting, which was attended by around a dozen MPs including at least one frontbencher, as “constructive” but it comes amid growing anger among the grassroots and some in the parliamentary party over comments made by Sir Keir on the escalating conflict.

In an interview with LBC after Hamas’s October 7 atrocity, Sir Keir suggested that Israel has the “right” to cut off power and water from Gaza.

But acknowledging the “distress” caused by the remarks, he subsequently sought to clarify his position, arguing that he did not mean to back the siege on more than two million Palestinians.

In a statement issued after Wednesday’s meeting, Sir Keir said that Labour backed calls – including the US and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – for humanitarian pauses amid international concern about the fate of Palestinian civilians facing Israeli bombardment.

It is understood that Manchester MP Afzal Khan, the parliamentary chair of the Labour Muslim Network, was among those at the meeting. Labour had sought to downplay the gathering as an informal one between Sir Keir and the MPs.

But it came as more than 150 Muslim Labour councillors urged Sir Keir and Ms Rayner to back an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza, with his comments also sparking resignations from councillors.

In a letter, the councillors from areas including Barking and Dagenham, Birmingham, Bradford, Blackburn, Bolton and Glasgow, said the leadership had to work to end the “humanitarian disaster”.

“As Labour councillors elected to serve our constituents, the message we have been hearing repeatedly over the past two weeks is simple, people just want to end the bloodshed and the loss of innocent life,” they wrote.

“No nation, no people or community should have to endure collective punishment and the same should be the case for the Palestinian people.”

In a sign of unrest too from within the parliamentary party, frontbencher Yasmin Qureshi used Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday to call the situation in Gaza “collective punishment” and ask Rishi Sunak: “How many more innocent Palestinians must die before this Prime Minister calls for a humanitarian ceasefire?”

A spokesman for Labour did not say whether Ms Qureshi – shadow minister for women and equalities – would be disciplined, but told reporters: “If I heard the question correctly… she was asking the Prime Minister what were the conditions that would lead the Prime Minister to support a ceasefire. And that was the question she was asking.”

Meanwhile, the South Wales Islamic Centre accused Sir Keir of having “gravely misrepresented” its meeting with Muslim leaders over the weekend.

The Labour leader had shared images of the meeting on Sunday, saying he repeated calls for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza and for water and power to be restored.

He said he was “questioned by members” and “made clear it is not and has never been my view that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines. International law must be followed”.

But the centre apologised for the “hurt and confusion” caused by hosting Sir Keir.

“We wish to stress Keir Starmer’s social media post and images gravely misrepresented our congregants and the nature of the visit,” a statement said.

“There was a robust and frank conversation which reflected the sentiments Muslim communities are feeling at this time.

“Members of the community directly challenged Keir on his statements made on the Israeli Government’s right to cut food, electricity and water to Gaza, warranting war crimes, as well as his failure to call for an immediate ceasefire.”

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