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Israel-Hamas conflict: Exploring the political consequences in Cambridge





Considering the intensity of the conflict which has been raging there for the last few weeks, the Gaza strip is a tiny piece of land.

The map below shows it at the same scale as Cambridgeshire - the whole length of the territory is only about the distance from St Neots to Ely, and at its narrowest point it would fit between Cherry Hinton and Impington. Yet despite being only one-ninth the size of our county, it has more than two and a half times the population crammed into its narrow borders.

Gaza and Cambridgeshire at the same scale. Map data © 2023 Google, Mapa GISrael
Gaza and Cambridgeshire at the same scale. Map data © 2023 Google, Mapa GISrael

Compared to the appalling terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, and the desperate situation of Gaza’s civilian population faced with Israel’s military onslaught, the political consequences of the conflict in the UK may seem insignificant. But political consequences there certainly are, and as the General Election gets closer they could be increasingly important, particularly for the Labour Party.

In Cambridge, the crisis has brought more demonstrators onto the streets than we’ve seen for a long time. Their numbers are certainly bolstered by the student population, but there are also a large number of local residents taking part. They are very much pro-Palestinian, and in favour of an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

A weekend protest march in Cambridge, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Picture: Kashif Darr
A weekend protest march in Cambridge, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Picture: Kashif Darr

This puts them at odds not only with UK government policy, but also with official Labour policy. Labour is calling for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting, but not a permanent ceasefire, saying that this would “only freeze this conflict and would leave hostages in Gaza and Hamas with the infrastructure and capability to carry out the sort of attack we saw on 7 October”.

Some Labour activists were particularly troubled by an interview that Keir Starmer gave to LBC during the Labour party conference in October. Asked by the interviewer, “A siege is appropriate? Cutting off power, cutting off water?” he replied “I think Israel does have that right”, though added that “everything should be done within international law”.

This was too much for Romsey councillor Mairéad Healy, who resigned from the Labour party in protest, and plans to sit as an Independent for the rest of her term of office. So far, none of her former colleagues have followed suit, so Labour still have a comfortable majority on the city council. This is in contrast to the situation in Oxford, where nine Labour councillors have quit the party, leaving the council there under no overall control.

Cllr Mairéad Healy resigned from the Labour group. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Mairéad Healy resigned from the Labour group. Picture: Keith Heppell

Earlier this month, 330 Labour councillors wrote to the party leadership demanding support for a ceasefire, saying: “The intensified human catastrophe in Gaza impacts us all, and the Labour Party’s failure to call for an end to violence is causing hurt in our communities.” Seven of the signatories were from Cambridge.

Soon after that, the full Cambridge City Council Labour group issued a statement condemning the October 7 massacre and the taking of hostages by Hamas, the bombardment of Gaza, the resulting deaths, and the ongoing siege, and calling for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian aid. While this still leaves them out of line with official party policy, the fact that it’s a statement from the whole council group means that further resignations are less likely.

A weekend protest march in Cambridge, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Picture: Kashif Darr
A weekend protest march in Cambridge, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Picture: Kashif Darr

Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner has so far been rather quiet on the issue. As I write, there is nothing on his website or social media relating to the conflict, and people who have contacted him about it have had replies essentially echoing the line of the national Labour leadership.

As a shadow minister, Daniel is bound by collective responsibility to follow the party line, and would need to resign his role if he wanted to support a different policy. He did just this in 2017, when he resigned as shadow transport minister in order to vote in favour of the European Single Market against the Labour whip, but I would be surprised to see a repeat performance over the current conflict.

His 2017 resignation was to uphold a specific election pledge, which isn’t a factor this time, and with the General Election probably less than a year away, and the polls still showing large Labour leads, I think Daniel’s instinctive party loyalty will kick in. Still, he must be getting a large amount of email disagreeing with Labour policy on the issue, and he has certainly come in for some criticism in speeches at the demonstrations.

A weekend protest march in Cambridge, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Picture: Kashif Darr
A weekend protest march in Cambridge, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Picture: Kashif Darr

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with the Iraq War and its aftermath 20 years ago, when Tony Blair’s alliance with US President George W Bush caused a lot of unhappiness among Labour supporters. The issue certainly played a role in the defeat of Cambridge’s then-MP, Anne Campbell, despite her resignation from a government role to vote against the policy in 2003. Virtually every Lib Dem leaflet at the time featured a picture of Tony Blair and George Bush looking conspiratorial, and the aftermath of the war undoubtedly swung votes in Cambridge towards Lib Dem David Howarth, who took the seat in 2005.

However, I’m not expecting a similar effect this time. The Lib Dem response has been led by their Oxford MP Layla Moran, the first MP of Palestinian descent, but in substance it isn’t very different from Labour’s - condemnation of Hamas terrorism, support for a “humanitarian pause” to get essential supplies to civilians, and in the longer-term working towards a two-state solution. It’s possible that some Labour supporters may instead look to the Green Party, who do support an immediate ceasefire, but probably the main political risk for Labour is that disaffected supporters and activists will simply stay home.

Unfortunately, there is no end in sight to the fighting, or the suffering of the civilian population, and the political impact will continue as the conflict grinds on. Whatever the eventual outcome, it looks like yet more geological layers of hatred will be laid down in the region, and a peaceful settlement seems as far away as ever.



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