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Is Labour still a steady ship?

Westminster Palace
16 November 2023
Public Affairs

It had been plain sailing for Labour recently, with the ghost of Corbyn retreated into the shadows, a significant lead in the polls, and the Conservatives suffering continued internal turmoil.

But old wounds reopened over the Israel-Gaza conflict on Wednesday, resulting in Keir Starmer’s biggest rebellion of his leadership to date. Almost a third of the Party’s MPs voted in favour of a ceasefire in Gaza during Wednesday’s Commons vote. The fallout being 56 MPs who defied the whip.  

The re-emergence of the left of the party and their attempt to regain some relevance brings into question Starmer’s grasp on party discipline. This was the first big challenge of his leadership. He had spent a considerable amount of effort repositioning the party’s focus – moving from the left under Corbyn, to the centre once again, and rebranding as a united party ready for government.  

The threat of the rising left tested this foundation but a firm response from LOTO saw only lower-level minister resignations from the front bench – not a huge blow. Apparently, Sue Gray, Starmer’s Chief of Staff, was a leading figure in corralling MPs and preventing frontbenchers from voting in favour of a ceasefire, using her skills from her time in the civil service to great use.  

What this means for the road ahead is telling – it seems that in the face of internal opposition, Starmer will hold his nerve and reward the loyal. While the rebellion slightly embarrassing, the statesman image that Starmer and his team have been crafting is yet to crack and his grip on the party remains strong. It has also had the beneficial outcome of getting rid of some of the remaining ‘soft left’ that remained in place to appease certain sections on the CLP.

Facing down the internal opposition over the party’s stance to the conflict in Gaza, Starmer has shown political strength. But it is important to understand that this rebellion was issue specific and not linked to a wider narrative or agenda to undermine Starmer’s leadership. Since the start of the conflict, MPs have been receiving a huge number of emails from constituents on Labour’s stance to Israel-Gaza and felt significant pressure to act but the scale between towing the party line vs constituency sentiment proved heavier in favour of the PLP in the end.  

While polling has suggested that the electorate would be in favour of a ceasefire in Gaza, senior Labour figures worried that taking a different line to the government on the matter may open attack lines during the general election campaign. As we look to the election campaign, this rebellion has shown to be less of a test for Starmer but rather proof that he and his team have a grasp of the party and remain laser focused on plotting their path to power in 2024.