Starmer won’t sack senior Labour MPs rebelling over Gaza stance, says frontbencher

Leadership will ‘continue engaging’ with shadow ministers who back ceasefire, says Peter Kyle

Adam Forrest
Political correspondent
Sunday 29 October 2023 19:12 GMT
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People in Gaza asking ‘Where do we want to be when we die?’ says Lib Dem MP

Sir Keir Starmer will not sack shadow ministers rebelling over the party’s refusal to back a ceasefire in Gaza, frontbencher Peter Kyle has indicated.

The shadow science secretary said the Labour leadership would “continue engaging” with the dozen or so frontbenchers who do not agree with Sir Keir’s stance on the crisis in the Middle East.

Sir Keir has called for a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting to allow for aid to be delivered to civilians – but continues to support Israel’s right to defend itself as it steps up its ground invasion.

A host of shadow ministers have broken ranks in recent days – either with express backing for a ceasefire or by sharing a demand from the Labour Friends of Palestine group. It means 13 frontbenchers are now opposed to Sir Keir’s position.

Asked if those speaking against Sir Keir should be sacked, Mr Kyle told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: “Well look, what we are going to do, I suspect, is continue engaging with them.”

The shadow cabinet member repeatedly claimed Labour were “united” on the issue – sparking repeated interjections from host Victoria Derbyshire, who insisted: “No you’re not.”

Shadow ministers Naz Shah, Paul Barker and Afzal Khan all openly challenged Sir Keir’s refusal to support a ceasefire, after Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham all defied the leadership.

Shadow veterans minister Rachel Hopkins, shadow local government minister Sarah Owen and shadow domestic violence minister Jess Phillips, and Labour whip Kim Leadbeater all retweeted calls for a ceasefire on X/Twitter on Saturday.

It came as Labour’s shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood appeared to warn Israel against any “collective punishment” of civilians in Gaza.

Starmer is under pressure over his stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict

“My position, as well as that of my party, has been that it is absolutely essential that there is a clear distinction between a terrorist group and the innocent civilians of Gaza, who have suffered for so long and do not deserve collective punishment,” she wrote in a letter to constituents shared with TheSunday Telegraph.

The senior shadow cabinet member also said she had told individuals at “every level’ in the party that Sir Keir’s remarks on LBC had caused “immense distress”.

The Labour leader has also angered many in the party with comments on LBC Radio in which he appeared to back the cutting of power and water to Gaza – which he clarified 10 days later, insisting: “I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines.”

Some Labour MPs warned Sir Keir that the party faces an “existential threat” in seats with a large number of Muslim voters, as councillors quit and local parties pass motions in favour of a ceasefire.

Peter Kyle on ‘Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg’

Mr Kyle also insisted on Times Radio that collective responsibility had not been suspended when it comes to the Israel-Gaza position – but indicated that frontbenchers who disagree with the leader won’t be asked to step in line.

He also claimed that the growing row was a sign of “strength not weakness”. Mr Kyle told the BBC: “I think the fact that we have a vigorous debate within our party … reflects a strength. It is a strength of our leadership, certainly not a weakness of our party.”

The frontbencher said the party is not thinking about whether it will lose the support of Muslim voters on its position. “We are not thinking ‘how do we win votes?’ or what votes we will lose at a time when there is war and conflict unfolding before us,” he told Sky News.

Mr Kyle said some of the calls for a ceasefire were “just too ambiguous”, and said “we don’t know” what calls for a ceasefire would mean for Israeli hostages in Gaza.

He also stressed caution when asked if he thought Israel is potentially guilty of war crimes in Gaza. “We have called for international law to be obeyed at all times … we are expecting Israel in its response to that terrorist attack to act within international law.”

Meanwhile, former Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell – a senior figure in Jeremy Corbyn’s team – has defended the use of the phrase from “the river to the sea” against claims it is antisemitic.

“I think that’s a complete misinterpretation,” the Labour left-winger said. “When that phrase was generated, it was actually a phrase about how people can live together.”

Mr McDonnell admitted he had used the phrase in the past. “Of course I have, because for me it was about securing a settlement which recognised justice for the Palestinians,” said the MP.

Mr Kyle also told Times Radio that fellow Labour MP Andy McDonald, a left-wing backbencher, should not have used the phrase “between the river and the sea” at a pro-Palestine rally at the weekend. He said: “I don’t think that people should use that phrase because of the impact it has.”

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