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Sir Keir Starmer has sought to play down the divisions within Labour over his stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict, as he insisted his focus was on stopping the suffering in Gaza not on the “individual positions” of party members.
It comes after two Labour council leaders called on him to resign, in the latest sign of internal divisions within Labour amid unhappiness among some MPs and members over the refusal of Sir Keir to back a ceasefire as the crisis continues to escalate.
“I understand why people feel very strongly about this, not just in the Labour Party, I think, in all political parties and across the country,” Sir Keir told reporters after a speech at the North East Chamber of Commerce.
“This isn’t about the particular position taken by individuals within the Labour Party. It is about alleviating that suffering. And just at the moment we desperately need humanitarian aid to get in faster into Gaza.”
The leader of the opposition should in the least be applying pressure on the Prime Minister, on the Government, to call for a ceasefire and a release of all hostages
Afrasiab Anwar, Burnley council leader
He added: “My focus is on alleviating the awful suffering of all of those caught up in the situation that has developed over the last few weeks, whatever the individual positions of members of my party. That is not my focus.”
The row has dogged Sir Keir for days, with the Labour leader facing repeated questions from reporters about his position on the conflict during an event intended to highlight the party’s plans on business, building and jobs.
He rejected suggestions that there is “great division” in Labour over the issue, which has seen sixteen frontbenchers now either having called for a ceasefire or shared others’ calls backing a ceasefire on social media.
The list includes Yasmin Qureshi, Jess Phillips and Imran Hussain.
Ms Phillips on Thursday warned that Israel’s military action against Hamas will only end in “death and destruction” and called for the negotiation of “peaceful political solutions”.
Sir Keir insisted that collective responsibility remains “important”, but declined to say whether frontbenchers would face being sacked for breaking with the leadership’s position.
“It’s my job as leader of the party to assess how we enforce and bring about collective responsibility and I will do so.
“But I’ve set out my position clearly. I am not doing so in accordance with particular views that individual members of the Labour Party may or may not take, that is not my central objective, and I do not think it should be the priority.”
The calls to resign came from Asjad Mahmood, a Pendle Borough councillor, as well as Burnley council leader Afrasiab Anwar.
I think the way to get to a peaceful resolution is a de-escalation of violence, a de-escalation of what you’ve seen in the Gaza Strip, and the way to get there is a ceasefire
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan
It comes after hundreds of councillors urged Sir Keir to go further and back a ceasefire, as the death toll rises in the Gaza Strip after days of Israeli bombardments.
Mr Anward said a humanitarian pause is “not good enough”.
“What we feel should be happening is that the leader of the opposition should, in the least, be applying pressure on the Prime Minister, on the Government, to call for a ceasefire and a release of all hostages.
He added: “The reason that a humanitarian pause is not good enough is because obviously the aid will get in but then the bombing, the attacks will start again. What we’re seeing is that these innocent civilians have got nowhere to escape to.
“The whole international community came out and said that Israel has the right to defend itself, just as any other nation does, but it’s got to be proportional and within international law.
“The number of lives that we’re seeing lost, the number of people, innocent civilians, who are losing their lives on both sides, we need to call it out and there needs to be a stop to it.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has called for a ceasefire, said on Friday that there are “many areas” regarding the Middle East on which he agreed with Sir Keir.
But he said: “I think the way to get to a peaceful resolution is a de-escalation of violence, a de-escalation of what you’ve seen in the Gaza Strip, and the way to get there is a ceasefire.”