Shahid’s banner does not sit on the fence: Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are “Two Cheeks of the Same Arse”.
The Labour leader “has always seemed a duplicitous personality to me,” the protester says, raising his voice over the chants ricocheting off Park Lane. “There seems to be a thin line between his policies and those of the Tories.”
It’s Saturday 11th November and Shahid is attending the biggest pro-Palestine march in London yet; 300,000 people, according to police estimates, taking to the streets to demand an end to the siege of Gaza. It follows the 7th October attack on Israel by Hamas, which resulted in 1,200 deaths and some 240 hostages being taken into the region, the deadliest single day the Jewish people have lived through since the Holocaust.
But this latest march was nearly blocked before it even began. The UK government and certain facets of the media, such as the Daily Mail, criticised organisers for planning it on Armistice Day, which commemorates the millions of soldiers and civilians killed during World War I. The irony of the Armistice Day timing is, of course, that “armistice” literally means ceasefire: the exact thing that protesters are calling for. But the Leader of the Opposition, and the man who looks increasingly likely to be our next Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, is still yet to say it himself.
“A ceasefire could leave Hamas emboldened. [Truces] always freeze any conflict in the state where it currently lies,” Starmer said in a speech at Chatham House on 31st October. “As we speak, that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capabilities to carry out the sort of attack we saw on October 7th.”
Starmer has repeatedly called for “humanitarian pauses” to allow aid into Gaza but has not yet supported a ceasefire. Instead, he has emphasised the need for the hostages, many of whom are elderly or children, to be returned. “To say to Israel – whilst its citizens are still being held – ‘you should have a ceasefire’ in my view is inconsistent with saying it’s their right to try and get their hostages back [as we would say if it was the UK],” he said last Thursday at a Q&A in Wolverhampton.
This position has resulted in intense pressure from his colleagues. At last count, 68 Labour MPs have called for a ceasefire and some 50 councillors around the country have resigned in protest at the party’s position. Last week, the Labour-run Welsh Parliament voted for an end to the conflict. Yesterday, The Guardian reported that Starmer was facing serious political in-fighting amid calls for him to support an SNP amendment to The King’s Speech this week demanding a ceasefire, rather than a Labour amendment for longer pauses, with the leader now facing a rebellion by as many as a dozen shadow ministers. Today, House of Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will decide whether a vote will take place on either motion. If the SNP amendment is selected, any Labour ministers who support it face being sacked.
Of course, the Labour leader wasn’t the only politician to be called out at Saturday’s march. The face of Suella Braverman, the then-Home Secretary, was plastered onto placards, following her polemic in The Times, which galvanised far-right violence at the Cenotaph and ultimately cost her her job. But it is Starmer’s stance that is reverberating most among young voters – people we might reasonably consider to be the party’s natural supporters.
“It’s sad. I didn’t put it past the Tory party,” says Salma, a young protestor. “But I thought Labour would be better. They’re supposed to be the voice of the people.” Former Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard echoed this in The Tribune today: “It is the job of Labour to be more humane, to challenge the established limits of any situation and to make the case for a rebalancing of power.”
Labour has previously supported a ceasefire. In 2009, David Miliband, as the serving Foreign Secretary, called for a ceasefire amid an escalation in the conflict. In 2014, Labour enforced the whip to ensure MPs voted to recognise Palestine as a state, and the party’s 2019 manifesto demanded that “all sides must avoid taking action that would make peace harder to achieve” including “blockades, occupation and settlements and an end to rocket and terror attacks.” That manifesto, though, was written during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The former Labour leader was suspended in 2020 due to his reaction to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report on antisemitism in the party. In a TV interview this week, he refused to call Hamas a terror organisation, despite being asked 12 times to do so.
Raye, another protester attending with her group of friends, shares Salma’s disappointment in what they believe to be a deviation from Labour’s core values. “It’s pathetic and cowardly. It’s a perfect time for Labour to prove themselves, but they’re holding a neutral position towards genocide,” she says. “I don’t know how they can’t speak up on it. Silence speaks volumes.”
Others aren’t surprised at all. Richard, operating a huge wooden marionette of Keir Starmer, expected it. “We need to get away from this view that he is pathetic or spineless.” In his view, “Starmer’s right-wing. I expected him to come in and be like Tony Blair in . But not before he even got into power. He’s already tarnished his position.”
According to a poll of 2,600 people conducted by YouGov on 19th October, 76 per cent of Britons believe there should be an immediate ceasefire. “British Muslims are really disappointed. Labour is going to lose millions of votes in the UK,” claims Fahim, a Kashmiri leader in the UK. “[But] we appreciate all the Labour MPs [and councillors] who are standing on the right side of history,” he says, mentioning Zarah Sultana, MP for Coventry South. One poll by the Muslim Census suggests Starmer’s position has caused a 66 per cent drop-off in support from British Muslims.
For everyone THE FACE speaks to, Starmer’s stance is a potential game-changer. “This has put me off voting for Labour again,” Sami says. “I’ve been a Labour supporter all my life but don’t know who to vote for,” agrees Raye, who adds that she might vote instead for the Liberal Democrats, who have called for a bilateral ceasefire, despite the boost this might provide to the Tories at a general election widely expected to happen next year.
Another protestor, Em, plans to vote for the Green Party, due to its backing of a ceasefire. For her, the damage can’t be undone. “I definitely won’t be voting Labour at the next election,” she says. “I live in Tottenham and [Shadow Foreign Secretary] David Lammy is my local MP. I’ve written [to him] about three times a week in the last month [but] he just talks about engaging with humanitarian organisations.”
With the situation so fast-moving, and public opinion increasingly volatile, could these marches help persuade Starmer to amend his stance? “I think he will change his mind. He’s a notorious flip-flopper,” Shahid says.
But no matter what the Labour leader ultimately decides, for many young protesters, the Shadow Cabinet’s initial position will not be forgotten. As Raye puts it, “These are people’s lives we’re talking about.”