Keir Starmer batted away demands from Labour councillors to quit over his Gaza stance today – as he argued the party is united.
Sir Keir said he was not focused on the ‘position of individuals’ as he was grilled on the deepening chaos within Labour.
After failing to shift the agenda with a speech on domestic policy in the North East, he was challenged over leaders of Burnley and Pendle councils urging him to ‘step aside’ over his refusal to call for a ceasefire.
Sir Keir made clear he was sticking to his support for ‘humanitarian pauses’ to allow aid to get into Gaza.
But he dodged saying whether he would sack a shadow cabinet member who supported a ceasefire, instead insisting there was no ‘great division’ within the party.
Sir Keir’s has been scrambling to quell a mounting revolt after he strongly backed Israel right to defend itself after the horrific Hamas terror attacks.
Asked about calls from Labour council leaders for him to stand down, Sir Keir said: ‘My focus is on alleviating the awful suffering of all of those that are 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. My focus is in driving forward to make sure that all of us can take responsibility for ensuring that we do what we can to alleviate that situation.’
He insisted a humanitarian pause was the ‘only practical way’ to do this.
On calls for a ceasefire, he added: ‘To say to a sovereign country when 200 of its civilians are being held hostage that they must give up their right to self-defence, is not for me the correct position, and anyone who has watched the images in the last two or three days have seen precisely what Hamas is saying about this.’
Sir Keir tried to play down the scale of divisions within Labour. ‘Whether people are asking for a ceasefire or a humanitarian pause, it comes from the same place,’ he said.
‘This is not unique to the Labour Party. Across the country, people desperately want to see an alleviation of the situation – that is a human emotion to what we’re seeing on our televisions and images and reports every single day.
‘I am not surprised that people are trying to go for any option that they see would alleviate the awful situation. I don’t think that should be taken as great divison.’
A slew of frontbenchers have defied the leader by calling for a ceasefire. But Sir Keir declined to say he would sack top-rank shadow cabinet members who followed suit.
He said: ‘Collective responsibility is important. 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 priority is to get change in the situation just as quickly as we can.’
Earlier, Afrasiab Anwar, leader of Burnley Council, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he had tried appealing to the Labour leader but ‘everything that we’ve said has not been heard’.
He said the call for Sir Keir to quit was a ‘last resort’.
‘What we feel should be happening is 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 the release of all hostages,’ he said.
‘I think if that is his position then he should step aside, because that does not speak of the values that we as members of the Labour Party sign up for – which is about speaking out against any injustices, whether that is here of anywhere else across the world.’
Asjad Mahmood, who is the leader of Pendle Borough Council, told the BBC that Sir Keir had ‘failed to listen’ to calls for a ceasefire to ‘stop the innocent loss of lives’.
He said Sir Keir should resign to ‘allow someone to lead our party who has compassion and speaks out against injustice and indiscriminate killing of innocent human beings’.
A separate poll has found that nearly a fifth of Labour councillors have considered walking away from the party over the Gaza position.
Jess Phillips questioned how the killing of civilians would lead to long-term security for Israelis.
The shadow minister directly challenged the notion that Israel is defending itself by going after Hamas for its October 7 atrocity.
‘I personally don’t see killing hundreds, and what will turn out to be tens of thousands of people, within a few short weeks, as a military objective that leads to any sort of long-term status of security for Israeli people,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.
‘I maintain there has got to be peaceful political solutions negotiated to try and bring an end to the killing.’
Ms Phillips is among 16 Labour frontbenchers who are at loggerheads with Sir Keir over the ceasefire.
In his speech later, Sir Keir will warn that the King’s Speech will be a ‘manifesto for stagnation’ as he accuses Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of overseeing economic decline.
He will call for a ‘big build’ to revive the sluggish economy during a visit to Durham on Friday.
Addressing businesses at the North East Chamber of Commerce, he is expected to say: ‘Britain needs this King’s Speech to kick off a big build.
‘We have to provide the businesses, communities and people of this nation with the conditions to succeed. A fundamental deal, that we serve the country, while you drive it forward.
‘The Tories can’t do this. Rishi Sunak is too weak to stand up to the blockers on his backbenches. Too haunted by ghosts of Conservative imagination to see the country’s problems as you see them.’
Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands said: ‘Sir Keir Starmer is making more empty promises that mean even less than usual as he can’t even enforce collective responsibility in his own party.
‘If his own team are allowed to openly defy him, how could he possibly persuade MPs to vote for the difficult long-term decisions that the country needs?’