Sir Keir Starmer says Labour's Gaza ceasefire position about showing credentials to be next prime minister
Sir Keir said "working with our international allies" to free hostages taken by Hamas and push for pauses in the fighting so Palestinians can find safety is "what you would expect from someone who wants to form the next government".
His party has backed the UK Government in lobbying for humanitarian pauses in the Israel-Hamas war, but not gone so far as to demand a ceasefire – a position that aligns with the US, one of the UK's closest allies.
During a visit to Aberdeenshire on Friday, Sir Keir described the position of pushing for pauses to get aid in and people out of the Gaza Strip as a "stepping stone to a cessation to the fighting".
And he looked to play down splits within Labour on the issue, insisting there was "complete unity" in the party on wanting to "alleviate the suffering" of Gazans, free Hamas's captives and find a "pathway to the two-state solution".
It has been suggested Sir Keir is keen to show Washington the Labour Party, should it win the next general election, would remain solid on foreign policy, even when there were internal ruptures.
The splits became clear to see on the issue of a ceasefire in Gaza this week, with Sir Keir suffering a major rebellion in the Commons.
He had put Labour MPs on a three-line whip not to vote for a SNP motion calling for an immediate ceasefire, but 56 of his lawmakers defied the order.
Ten shadow ministers and parliamentary aides quit or were sacked in order to vote for the failed amendment to the King's Speech on Wednesday.
The Guardian reported there could still be further frontbench resignations, citing sources who said some would be willing to walk away from their positions if Sir Keir does not push Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take a tougher line on Israel's military retaliation in Gaza.
Since Israel started striking back at Hamas after its deadly raids on October 7, the Gazan health ministry – run by the Palestinian militant group – says more than 11,470 people have been killed in the territory.
The assault on Israel by Hamas last month saw 1,200 people killed and about 240 taken hostage.
Sir Keir would not be drawn on whether he feared losing more frontbenchers over his party's stance when pressed on it by broadcasters in Scotland as he insisted the party was united in its position on Gaza.
He said: "I'm the leader of the Labour Party. I hope that at the next election, we will be able to form a government.
"That is precisely why my focus is on the question of the release of the hostages and precisely on the question of how do we alleviate the suffering on the ground for so many civilians that have lost their lives in Gaza. That is what you would expect from the leader of the Opposition.
"That is what you would expect from someone who wants to form the next government – working with our international allies to ensure that we can get those hostages released, we can alleviate the situation on the ground, the killing of so many innocent civilians, women and children included.
"That is where my focus is. That is where I think anybody watching this would expect the focus to be of the leader of the Opposition, not on questions of party management."
He did not say whether he had lined up replacements for those who had left the front bench following the Gaza vote, saying he was not going to "manage" collective responsibility in the party "live on air".
Instead, the human rights barrister said he would be continuing to "ask the question of how can we make a material difference on the ground in Gaza".
He said conversations with allies and world leaders would continue to ensure "we have a credible plan to ensure that where there are pauses and humanitarian aid can get in, that they become longer so more aid can get in".
Any pauses need to be "a stepping stone to a cessation to the fighting, which is going to be needed, and also a stepping stone to a political pathway to the two-state solution", Sir Keir added.
Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence, was one of those to leave her post to support a ceasefire call in the Commons.
The Birmingham Yardley MP has since said she wants to be "an asset" to Sir Keir from the back benches and there was "no animosity" between the pair.
She also hinted that he could bring her back onto the front bench, telling The News Agents podcast the party leader had told her he needed "people like you to help me deliver the missions that we have coming up".
Sir Keir has spent the past year laying out the five so-called "missions" of his potential premiership, with Labour significantly ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls.
Labour continues to be dogged by debate around its Gaza position as pro-Palestinian protest organisers prepare for a national day of action on Saturday, instead of a large march in central London.
The direct action will take the form of more than 100 smaller rallies at various locations across the UK. London will see ten events, including rallies in Islington, Redbridge and Tower Hamlets.
Previous weekends have seen thousands of protesters and counter-protesters converging on the capital.
A spokeswoman for organisers Stop The War Coalition said Saturday’s rallies come ahead of a national demonstration planned for the following Saturday.
“Tomorrow is the day of action that we’ve called for. Groups around the country are organising local rallies and marches to basically build for the national demonstration that has been called for next Saturday,” she said.
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