This is not 'situation normal' (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

November 2, 2023   7 mins

Keir Starmer, like Israel, must brace for a long war he might not be able to win. The Labour leader has staked out a position that is far more exposed than it might first appear, for this is a crisis he cannot control or predict, only manage. And it is one that is only going to grow.

In one important sense, he must not panic. As a senior Labour figure put it to me, this is “situation normal” for any Labour leader: events happen, the Left claims the moral high ground, tensions grow, the party must be managed. Almost every one of Starmer’s predecessors has been in the same situation. And, yet, this crisis is acutely challenging precisely because it is not normal for the very reasons he set out in his speech on Tuesday. The slaughter of Israeli civilians on October 7 was “terrorism on a scale and brutality that few countries have ever experienced”. And so will be the response from Israel, along with the subsequent fallout. This, after all, was Hamas’s entire strategy, years in the making: to lure Israel into the mistaken belief that they could be managed as a proto-state rather than a terrorist army committed to Israel’s destruction.

The very fact that Starmer felt the need to give a speech at Chatham House explaining his policy on the crisis in Gaza reveals the extent of the trouble. More than 60 Labour MPs have now called for a ceasefire, in direct opposition to Starmer, as well as 250 councillors, the party’s mayors in London and Manchester and its leader in Scotland. More worrying than any of these, though, is the quiet briefing that ultra-loyalists Wes Streeting and Shabana Mahmood are also unhappy with Starmer’s stance. This, in other words, is not a normal rebellion, but a dangerous gap between the leader and his party on a core question of judgement long before the crisis has reached its nadir.

On Tuesday, Starmer attempted to tread a careful line between understanding and discipline, saying that he recognised the strength of feeling while also warning that he would need to enforce collective discipline. Then, yesterday, he released a video to mark Islamophobia Awareness Month which, he said, “comes at a deeply troubling time for Britain’s Muslim communities”. As the war builds, managing to maintain this position will prove ever more difficult.

One element of Starmer’s problem is external, baked into the nature of the conflict. Unlike every other war in Israel’s history, planned as hard and fast retaliations to deter future attacks, this invasion is building violently but incrementally, as The Economist’s Defence Editor, Shashank Joshi, told me. Some are now talking of an operation lasting five years. This sort of scenario is far more likely to provoke regional escalation and even Islamist terror in the West. This is not situation normal.

The other part of Starmer’s dilemma, though, is internal, at the very heart of his party’s understanding of itself. Labour, as one party grandee put it to me yesterday, sees itself as a movement of “conscience and reform” standing up for the poor and dispossessed. “This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing,” as Harold Wilson put it. Right now, the dominant narrative in progressive circles is that Israel is the baddy and Palestine the goody. All else flows from this childish analysis. Pogroms are bad, but they do “not happen in a vacuum”, according to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Israel’s response, in contrast, does seem to take place in a vacuum; the fate of its citizens held hostage by Hamas largely ignored (or worse dismissed), as well as the fact that Hamas actively does not support any negotiated settlement with Israel.

For those who insist that this situation is normal, it is true that Labour’s self-perception as the conscientious party of British politics always causes difficulties in foreign policy. Unlike domestic politics, which is all about moral and political judgements to do with the allocation of resources, foreign policy necessarily involves a myriad other considerations where morality offers no easy guide, from security to order, deterrence and even pure national interest. In a sense, the disordered world of international relations lends itself to the tragic mind of the conservative, while the ordered life of the nation state is the natural home of the progressive. At home, you can grow the economy and share out the proceeds; in foreign policy you cannot grow territory without someone losing out.

This — for what it’s worth — is as true for Blairite progressives as it is for the anti-colonial Left. Both want foreign policies based on notions of an overarching morality. For the former, this means liberal interventionism; for the latter, peaceful non-interventionism. It is no coincidence that both continue to regard the other as reprehensible. I have been struck by the continued vehemence of opinion over Ed Miliband’s decision in 2013, for example, to vote against airstrikes on Syria to deter the further use of chemical weapons. This has become a totemic moment for the Labour Right that Starmer must not in any way echo, much as Tony Blair’s decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has become totemic for the Labour Left. To both sides, these two decisions were moral failings more than ones of judgement.

The most instructive illustration of the problems Starmer faces, however, is not from 2003 or 2013, but 2006 and Israel’s war with Hezbollah. This is an event Tony Blair describes in his memoir, A Journey, as being more damaging to him than anything since Iraq, revealing “how far I had swung from the mainstream of conventional Western media wisdom and from my own people”.

As Blair understood, the political problem he faced was baked into the very nature of the conflict, pitting — in progressive eyes — one developed “Western” nation against a disempowered “resistance” movement. Just as today, Hezbollah knew they could provoke Israel and that Israel would have to respond, but could not do so without quickly losing international support. Just like today, Blair was tasked with managing a situation in which initial sympathy for Israel’s right to defend itself quickly disappeared as the images of what that meant began to filter through to the public. “Within days, the international angst transfers from the provocation to the retaliation. [And] suddenly Israel is the aggressor.” This is the cycle we are now in once again, only this time the wheel is turning far more violently, just as Hamas planned.

By 2006, Blair had come to view the situation in the Middle East far more tragically than before. He still believed in a two-state solution, but, as he writes, “I had by now come to see the entire conventional approach on dealing with this problem as itself part of the problem.” He now saw Israel involved in a “wider struggle between the strain of religious extremism in Islam and the rest of us”. In other words, Blair saw the morality of the struggle entirely differently from most in his party and the wider international (Western) Left: not as Israel the oppressor, but Israel forced into the vanguard of the global struggle against totalitarian fanaticism.

Reading the accounts of the horror inflicted by Hamas in the October 7 attacks certainly adds credence to Blair’s understanding: babies burned and kidnapped, women raped so violently their bones were broken, Holocaust survivors brought into their living room and shot — and much of the horror recorded for posterity by its proud perpetrators. “Father, I killed 10 Jews!” one delighted Hamas terrorist is recorded calling home during the attacks. “Check your WhatsApp! I sent you the photos! Father, I killed 10 Jews! I killed 10 Jews with my bare hands. Check your WhatsApp. Father, be proud of me!”

Starmer himself seemed to come close to this moral understanding in his speech seeking to calm tensions in the Labour party yesterday. The attack, he said, was the “biggest slaughter of Jews, and that is why they were killed — do not doubt that — since the Holocaust”. As a result, Starmer argued, calling for a ceasefire only meant freezing the situation in Hamas’s favour, loaded down, as it is, with its sacrificial human booty of more than 200 kidnapped Israelis, including one nine-month old baby. The perpetrators of the worst pogrom since 1945 would be emboldened, Starmer declared.

The problem for Starmer is that despite the brutality of Hamas’s slaughter, Western opinion has moved in exactly the same way it did in 2006: from initial sympathy to condemnation within days. And yet because of the nature of Hamas’s terror, this crisis is certain to be far worse than the war against Hezbollah in 2006 and so the condemnation will be louder.

In such circumstances, Starmer’s position is particularly difficult. On the one hand, it seems almost inevitable that he will slowly modify his position to manage his party, reflecting its essential understanding of the conflict. There are already hints at this direction of travel. “The siege conditions haven’t lifted, and that is unacceptable,” Starmer declared.

And yet, the genocidal nature of Hamas and its support from Iran is not going away. Israel is already facing rocket attacks from Iranian proxies in Yemen and Lebanon. “We must teach Israel a lesson,” Hamas Official Ghazi Hamad declared on Lebanese television this week. “We will do this again and again. The Al-Asqa is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth, because we have the determination, the resolve, and the capabilities to fight. Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it.” When challenged as to why Hamas had managed to build 500km of tunnels for itself but not to protect civilians, Mousa Abu Marzouk, from the organisation’s political bureau, told Russia Today that that was the UN’s job.

In the end, much will rest on public opinion. Will the West take Hamas’s words at face value, or for that matter Iran’s? Or will it filter the conflict through its own eyes, as the simple struggle between oppressor and oppressed?

Reading Blair’s account of the situation in 2006, you cannot help but feel he had given up. He was too tired and world weary. “At points I had wondered why I didn’t just cave in and condemn Israel and call for them to stop unilaterally,” he writes. “The Israelis would have understood it, and it would have been the proverbial safety valve for the fierce political criticism.” It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that had that war happened in 1996, rather than a decade later, this is exactly what Blair would have done. “I had my determination to comfort me,” he records in his memoir, “and by and large it did (which is, I suppose, what always happens to leaders when the final hubris overwhelms them).”

Starmer, though, is not yet even prime minister. Determination alone will provide little comfort and he will be warned not to let Blairite hubris overwhelm him. In Greek mythology, hubris is the excessive pride of someone who believes they can defy the gods. In the West, of course, our god is public opinion. One insider told me Starmer had little to worry about because, in the end, no one will vote in the 2024 general election based on events in the Middle East in 2023. And Starmer isn’t about to sacrifice his ambitions for a policy that will make almost no difference to anyone other than Labour’s own conscience.

Tom McTague is UnHerd‘s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.