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Muslim Labour MPs urge Keir Starmer to back Gaza ceasefire

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Muslim Labour MPs have demanded that the party leadership back calls for a ceasefire in Gaza in “robust” talks with Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday.

The Labour leader and his deputy, Angela Rayner, met more than a dozen Muslim parliamentarians in the House of Commons amid simmering tensions in Britain’s main opposition party about its formal position on the Israel-Hamas war.

One MP present said the “central point was about the ceasefire”, a proposal that both Starmer and the Conservative government have declined to support, with Downing Street warning that it would only benefit Hamas.

While both Starmer and prime minister Rishi Sunak on Monday supported US proposals for a humanitarian “pause” in the war to allow more aid to be delivered to Gaza, many Labour MPs want the party to go further.

“This is not just an issue among Muslims. The public is so overwhelmingly in one place and the [Labour] leadership is in another,” said the MP who attended the meeting.

They pointed to a YouGov poll last week that showed 76 per cent of Britons thought there definitely or probably should be a ceasefire, while 8 per cent thought there definitely or probably should not.

Starmer was also challenged outright at the meeting about why it “took so long” for him to clarify remarks suggesting he believed Israel had a right to withhold power and water from Gaza, according to another MP who was present.

Nine days after his original comment to LBC, Starmer sought to correct the record, insisting he had meant that Israel had a right to self-defence, not a right to inflict a total siege on the enclave.

The MP said the tone of the talks was constructive, but added: “Are we where we need to be? The answer is no. There’s a lot more work to be done.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday
Labour leader Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday © Maria Unger/UK Parliament

In a statement after the meeting, Starmer said the level of aid reaching Gaza was “completely insufficient” and “we support humanitarian pauses”.

His spokesperson said the Labour leader recognised that it was “a very difficult time” for many people in the UK and there were “strong feelings on all sides of the debate”.

It was the second crunch meeting about Labour’s formal position on the Israel-Hamas war in as many weeks, after members of the shadow cabinet were dispatched to speak to senior councillors last Monday in a push to contain the fallout at a local level.

Labour officials were on Wednesday braced for potential resignations, following a report that two shadow ministers were considering quitting the front bench over the matter.

Starmer swerved the subject of the Israel-Hamas war during the weekly session of prime minister’s questions, although not all his front bench colleagues followed suit.

Yasmin Qureshi, shadow equalities minister, diverged from the official party line by declaring in the Commons that Israel was inflicting “collective punishment” on civilians in Gaza and urging Sunak to call for a humanitarian ceasefire.

Anas Sarwar, head of Scottish Labour, has also gone further than the UK leadership of his party by saying that Israel has committed a “clear breach” of international law in its response to Hamas’ deadly attack on October 7.

While Starmer faces pressure from some sections of his party to change tack, his allies insist he has been right to steadfastly back Israel’s right to self-defence, particularly after Labour breached the Equality Act under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn by failing to curb antisemitism in its ranks.

At least 23 elected Labour councillors have already resigned from the party in protest at Starmer’s position on the conflict. Still more are threatening to leave if he does not toughen his stance on Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip.

In a letter sent on Wednesday, more than 150 Muslim Labour councillors called on Starmer and Rayner to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Labour’s Muslim network, a pressure group within the membership, pointed out that a Survation poll in 2022 showed that more than 76 per cent of registered Muslim voters supported the party then, making them a vital part of Labour’s electoral coalition.

“That support is now at serious risk following days of anger and tension over the party’s current position on Gaza,” said the letter.

An attempt by Starmer last week to bolster relations with some parts of the British Muslim community by visiting a mosque in Wales backfired.

The South Wales Islamic Centre said in a statement that hosting the Labour leader had sparked “hurt and confusion” among congregants and that his remarks about the visit on social media had “gravely misrepresented” the trip.

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