UK Labour is backing an ‘immediate’ Gaza cease-fire. But the devil’s in the details

LONDON — The U.K.’s opposition Labour Party is urging an “immediate humanitarian cease-fire” in the Israel-Hamas conflict. But it’s no straightforward call.

Ahead of a crunch vote in the House of Commons Wednesday, Labour — on course to form the next government on current polling — is tabling an amendment demanding a stop to the fighting in the region.

It’s a break from the center-left party’s previous position — and comes after weeks of pressure on the issue both internally and from the rival Scottish National Party. POLITICO unpacked the crunch vote so you don’t have to.

What’s happening Wednesday?

Labour is trying to see off a rebellion of its own MPs as the Scottish National Party, which has long called for a cease-fire, tries to make trouble for Labour on its left flank.

Labour, led by Keir Starmer, has faced criticism from some of its supporters for not taking a harder line on Israel’s retaliatory invasion of Gaza — following Hamas’ October 7 attacks — and the huge Palestinian death toll.

The party had previously only backed calls for a “sustainable” cease-fire — echoing the current U.K. government’s position.

The rhetorical shift may be small, but ahead of Wednesday’s vote the new wording is aimed at keeping restive Labour MPs on side with the party’s position rather than backing the SNP.

The SNP has form. It previously managed to claim Labour scalps by pressing an earlier Commons vote calling for a cease-fire in Israel and Gaza, at a time when Labour’s top brass were not yet doing so.

Labour, led by Keir Starmer, has faced criticism from some of its supporters for not taking a harder line on Israel’s retaliatory invasion of Gaza | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday MPs are set to vote on both an SNP motion — which calls for an “immediate” cease-fire — and a Labour amendment to that motion.

Labour’s plan states the same headline position — but has some important caveats. Already the SNP are claiming victory, saying Starmer was “forced into this position through public pressure and, in particular, by the SNP.”

So what does Labour’s Gaza amendment actually say?

There are subtle-but-important differences between the SNP and Labour motions.

Both parties call for an “immediate” cease-fire — but Labour argues its own amendment actually adds to the SNP position by also outlining hopes for a more detailed Middle East peace plan.

Crucially, it has softer language around Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

The Labour amendment calls for work to deliver a two-state solution in the region, and reaffirms the importance of recognizing a Palestinian state as a “contribution to rather than outcome of” any peace process.

But the amendment also removes any reference to the phrase “collective punishment of the Palestinian people,” which the SNP motion contains. Collective punishment — indiscriminate retribution against civilians — is illegal under international law.

Labour’s amendment also states that “Israel cannot be expected to cease fighting if Hamas continues with violence,” while the SNP motion does not.

That language has already been criticized by some left-wing Labour supporters, with the Momentum pressure group saying that “by making its call for a cease-fire so conditional and caveated, the Labour leadership is giving cover for Israel’s brutal war to continue.”

A Labour spokesperson said: “We want the fighting to stop now. We also have to be clear on how we prevent the violence starting up again. There will be no lasting peace without a diplomatic process that delivers a two-state solution, with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state.”

Still with us? Time for some process-ology

Things could get even more complicated on Wednesday when the Commons vote comes.

The order of the votes will be a crucial factor in determining how Labour can whip its MPs for its desired outcome. Commons rules suggest the Labour amendment (if called) could be voted on first, then the SNP motion, and then a government amendment (if there is one and the SNP amendment is rejected.)

But it’s not at all clear cut. “It all comes down to how you interpret the wording of a standing order,” Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society said. “It reinforces our concern that these provisions could be set out and expressed more clearly so that MPs, journalists and the watching public can better understand what may happen.”

Nevertheless, Labour has indicated it will order its MPs to abstain on the SNP motion so they can vote for the Labour amendment.

It remains to be seen how many will actually follow that order and wait for Labour’s amendment — given that 56 MPs defied the party whip to back the SNP’s cease-fire motion back in November.

And that means, shift or not, Starmer’s Gaza headache could well continue.