Does Starmer care that his Gaza stance is angering and repelling Muslim voters? I see no sign that he does | Owen Jones

It’s easy to determine the morality of a political party by examining who is welcome and who is not. In Keir Starmer’s Labour, apologists for war crimes rise to the top, while opponents of mass slaughter face the boot. This is not hyperbole. When Israel’s slaughter of Gaza began, Starmer publicly declared that Israel had the right to cut off water and electricity. As a human rights lawyer – who previously argued at the international court of justice (ICJ) that the 1991 Serbian siege of Vukovar constituted genocide – there was no excuse: article 33 of the Geneva conventions, for a start, prohibits collective punishment. Facing an immediate and merited backlash, he sought to claim he had not said what he, in fact, had. “I was saying Israel had the right to self-defence,” he explained. “When I said ‘that right’, it was that right to self-defence. I was not saying Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines – on the contrary.”

Labour MP Kate Osamor, on the other hand, was suspended after referring to Israel’s onslaught as a genocide. She did so on the same day that the world’s highest court recognised the potential for a finding of genocide and ordered Israel to take action to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza. Note that Osamor is left wing, and one of Labour’s few black female MPs: two others have already been sent packing.

These actions have repercussions, and last week it was revealed that Labour has begun to panic over disillusionment among Muslim voters, who represent a significant portion of its electoral coalition, and is preparing an outreach effort. One frontbencher admitted such voters were “no longer a safe voter base for us because of how we initially responded to the war”, meaning “damage control” was all that was left. And why the outreach: to reassure an important and valued constituency, or to shore up the vote? One Labour MP leaves no room for doubt. Labour Muslims are “geographically important”, they said – many live in key target seats.

If Labour wishes to woo Muslim voters, it might consider that many cannot support a party lined up behind what may yet be officially ruled by the ICJ as a genocide. Or a party that has created a hostile environment for those opposed to mass slaughter. After many Muslim Labour councillors quit in disgust over Gaza, one party source boasted it was a sign the party was “shaking off the fleas”. In the tawdry Batley and Spen byelection in 2021 – when Labour barely clung on – a party source claimed it had “lost the conservative Muslim vote over gay rights and Palestine”, but won back Tory voters, showing “we’re reconnecting with the wider electorate again”. Labour figures seemed to delight in the sowing: the reaping is not proving quite as much fun.

The party may conclude that the electoral consequences of this moral bankruptcy will be minimal. But many of its natural voters – not just British Muslims – do care about Gaza, and they have taken note. When the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy last week claimed that “Labour has been clear throughout the conflict that international law must be upheld”, he neglected to mention Starmer’s initial support for the siege, the other shadow cabinet members refusing to condemn cutting off the essentials of life, and his own refusal to condemn forcible displacement, which in the case of Gaza surely amounts to a war crime.

A couple of weeks ago, Starmer dropped Labour’s commitment to unilaterally recognise an independent Palestinian state, saying it would only do so as part of a process towards a two-state solution as an “an appropriate part of the process”. He was then outflanked by Conservative foreign secretary David Cameron, who did not make British recognition contingent on Israel.

Labour’s position has been so pernicious because it has given carte blanche to the government to line up behind Israeli atrocities. When Labour MP Tahir Ali accused Rishi Sunak of having “blood on his hands”, he was forced to apologise or face removal of Labour’s party whip.

The Conservatives are guilty of murderous complicity, through arms sales and diplomatic support for Israel, yet Labour has protected them from paying any political price for it. By late December, 71% of British voters backed an immediate ceasefire, but with Labour lining up behind the government stance, the Tories have been shielded from public pressure.

What, then, of the long-term consequences? Labour will surely win the election thanks to the Tories’ comprehensive self-destruction. But there is no enthusiasm for the Labour leadership, thanks to the absence of a positive domestic agenda and now this moral debacle over Gaza. As the Labour MP and former Blair adviser Jon Cruddas puts it, Labour’s “most rightwing, illiberal faction” is now dominant.

In his leadership pitch to Labour members Starmer pledged to “put human rights at the heart of foreign policy”. Many voters – not just Muslims, but all of those for whom mass slaughter of innocent people doesn’t sit well – have witnessed something else: support for war crimes and failure to condemn them, while opponents of an alleged genocide have been punished and purged.

An administration that lacks meaningful answers to domestic crises and is wedded to a toxic foreign policy will soon find itself in trouble. Look at Starmer’s political equivalents in the US, Germany and Australia: they won but swiftly became unpopular, and none U-turned so comprehensively as him on their original promises. If he enjoys a honeymoon, it will be short-lived.

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