Speech of the Month, October 2023 - Keir Starmer
Use a speech to face up to dissent
Of course Keir Starmer went into the Labour party conference with the line that “Israel has the right to defend herself.” He wanted to stick with his reputation for kicking perceived antisemitism out of the party and, given the atrocious nature of the terrorist attack of 7 October, he would have felt morally justified in espousing his line. But once the Israeli retaliation began and the days of bombardment passed sparking a humanitarian crisis for the Palestinian people, then Starmer’s original “Israel has the right to defend herself” message began to feel out of step with many Britons.
Labour MPs in constituencies with large Muslim communities were receiving a lot of flak. Muslim voters couldn't understand why Starmer was so seemingly Pro Israel; they felt betrayed by him. Not wanting to lose their votes, shadow MPs lobbied Starmer to demand a ceasefire. I’m not sure why. Did they really think Netanyahu was up for hearing from a possible PM in waiting?
Once it became clear that he wasn’t going to demand a ceasefire, Starmer realised he needed to make a speech explaining his thinking for the benefit of Labour MPs, disillusioned members and Muslims living in the UK.
If you haven’t seen the speech, then do take a look…
While nobody – even possibly his wife – would claim that Starmer is a dazzling public speaker, what’s striking is how confident and relaxed he appears when he’s making a case, even if it’s borne from a very contentious, knotty issue. It's in direct constrast to the discomfort, almost embarrassment he projects when he’s talking about his working-class roots and regular folksy stuff.
Confidence aside, here are other reasons why I rate this particular speech:
His concern for the Israeli and Palestinian people was balanced
Early in his speech, he stated that there are two immediate tragedies. He went on to say that “7th October was the biggest slaughter of Jews since the holocaust” and illustrated the attack and then talked about the second tragedy which is the “humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza; thousands of Palestinians dead, displaced, desperate for food and water.” And again, he detailed the plight of those people in a vivid, affecting way. He finished this section of his speech by saying, “At every stage of this crisis, my approach has been to respond to both these tragedies.”
Whether MPs or British Muslims feel his approach has been strong enough is a question for them but what comes through clearly is his equal concern for both sets of people.
He faced up to why he isn’t calling for a ceasefire clearly
Starmer got to the point about why he’s not going to call for a ceasefire. He said he had two reasons, 1, that a ceasefire freezes a conflict in the state it lies and that would embolden Hamas and 2, he favours a pause in fighting so humanitarian aid can get through to Gaza.
He didn’t say how long the pause or pauses should last for, which makes me wonder if they could turn into a ceasefire but the fact that he’s only presented two reasons is great. Less is more when you’re explaining yourself. And his language was spot on, completely accessible, which again is important when you’re explaining yourself.
He delivered a strong, proactive ending
I liked the touch of mea culpa that was present in Starmer’s peroration. “For too long the international community has put the Palestinian / Israeli conflict into the ‘too difficult’ box.” It was clear that he feels that America and the UK hasn’t done enough since Hamas has been elected to lead and support a peace process.
But his outro line, “This is an old conflict. But it is not and ever has been an issue that will be solved by the black and white simplicity of unbending conviction. Rather, the colour of peace is grey” is putting culpability on the two major players in the conflict too. A small price for peace is compromise.
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