February 20, 2024 - 4:10pm

The Labour Party’s language on Gaza shifted another incremental notch this afternoon, calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza.

Back in the autumn, Starmer refused to call directly for a ceasefire, prompting 56 Labour MPs to defy their leader and back an SNP motion which explicitly advocated an immediate end to fighting in the Middle East. In a neat bit of symmetry, this latest party announcement comes ahead of another SNP-tabled vote in the House of Commons tomorrow. The Scottish Nationalists are lobbying for an “immediate ceasefire”, which Starmer appears to have broadly accepted, albeit with the word “humanitarian” carefully sandwiched in between. 

The linguistic journey for the Labour leader has been fascinating to observe. On Sunday, at the Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow, Starmer called for a “ceasefire that lasts” in Gaza. This followed the “sustainable ceasefire” he championed earlier this month, itself a successor to December’s “further cessation of hostilities” and November’s “substantial humanitarian pause”. How long is a substantial pause? Is the Leader of the Opposition a secret Harold Pinter fan? Starmer has finally overcome his allergy to the word “ceasefire”, but it will do little to win back those on the Labour Left he has alienated in recent months. 

In the subtle rubric of party relations, this afternoon’s update is not to be seen as a wholesale endorsement of the SNP’s Gaza motion but instead as an amendment. It stresses that Israel’s planned ground offensive in Rafah “risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences and therefore must not take place”, and calls for both sides in the conflict to observe the ceasefire. Though the party is providing a fuller outline than before of what exactly an end to hostilities would entail, the next question will be whether Starmer owes an explanation — or an apology — to the 10 shadow frontbenchers who either resigned or were fired after disobeying him in November.

“While I understand calls for a ceasefire, at this stage I do not believe that is the correct position,” the Labour leader told Chatham House in late October. Two months later, in his “sustainable” era, Starmer added that the party did “not believe that calling right now for a general and immediate ceasefire, hoping it somehow becomes permanent, is the way forward”. 

The pressure from Scotland is emanating not only from the SNP, but also from Labour’s own branch at Holyrood. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has consistently backed a full and immediate ceasefire, and reiterated that stance at the weekend’s conference as a motion was passed in favour of calling for an end to the fighting. 

This included, in Sarwar’s words, “the immediate release of hostages; immediate access to humanitarian aid; [and] crucially, immediate efforts by world leaders to forge a path to an enduring peace and a two-state solution”. Starmer’s statement today essentially chimed with all these points, and one wonders whether it was really the basis of his view the whole time. Yesterday, even the loyalist Wes Streeting conceded that his party’s stance was practically indistinguishable from the SNP’s.

Labour’s Gaza slow-motion pivot arrives a week after the party distanced itself from Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali, who alleged that Israel “allowed” the 7 October massacre to take place. It seems unlikely that this latest clarification will put an end to the infighting.

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.