This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

There’s little question that Labour and Scottish Labour have become a different proposition since Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar became their respective leaders.

The former looks certain to become the next Prime Minister, while a thumping win in the Rutherglen & Hamilton West by-election has given the party north of the border hope that it can not only take back some of its traditional heartlands in next year’s general election, but also make significant strides the next time a Holyrood government is elected.

However, despite the best efforts of both men to present a unified party ready for government, internal divisions have once again come to the fore in the wake of the conflict currently engulfing Israel and the Gaza Strip.

On Thursday nine members of the leadership of one of Scotland’s largest local Labour branches, Glasgow Kelvin, resigned en masse due to what they see as an attempt to stifle debate on the issue.

Members had submitted a motion calling on Mr Sarwar to press for both a ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, as well as the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to allow aid to reach those in need in Gaza.

They say they were immediately told that any discussion of the issue was to be considered out of order and “should not be debated at party meetings”. Those who resigned included Baroness Bryan of Partick, a Labour peer, and the Glasgow chair Jim MacKechnie.

The fault lines began to emerge shortly after the attack by Hamas which killed over 1,000 Israelis – many of them civilians – and the subsequent strikes on Gaza by the IDF, with some in the party believing that while the former was rightly condemned, leadership was less robust when it came to defending the civilians of the strip.

Israel imposed what it called “a complete siege” on the enclave, cutting off water and electricity and preventing food and fuel from entering the occupied territory. Mr Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, attracted criticism from many in his party for what they saw as a failure to condemn collective punishment, which is a war crime under Common Article 33 of the Geneva Convention.

The exchange with presenter Nick Ferrari on LBC radio went like this:

Starmer: “Israel does have that right to defend herself. I’m very clear Israel must have that – does have that – right to defend herself and Hamas bears responsibility.”

Ferrari: “A siege is appropriate? Cutting off power? Cutting off water? ...Sir Keir?”

Starmer: “I think Israel does have that right, it is an ongoing situation. Obviously, everything should be done within international law.”

A week after the comments were made, a spokesperson for Mr Starmer said that the Labour leader had been answering a previous question (about Israel’s right to defend itself) and that he had made clear any response should be within international law.

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Critics point to the fact he said “Israel does have that right” immediately after being asked by Mr Ferrari about the siege, and say that a clarification should have been issued immediately if Sir Keir did not mean to say Israel had the right to cut off power or water.

The comments sparked a wave of resignations in local councils, with party activists also responding angrily to an email sent by Labour HQ which gave the “strong advice” to stay away from demonstrations last weekend and not to take party banners if they did.

The Herald: Labour Party activists were given 'strong advice' to stay away from protests leading to a wave of local council resignationsLabour Party activists were given 'strong advice' to stay away from protests leading to a wave of local council resignations (Image: Newsquest)
This was, it said, because “individuals will not have the ability to control who they are photographed alongside and this risks threatening the Labour Party's ability to campaign against any form of racism and discrimination”.

In recent days it appears that the party leadership has sought to walk a more fine line, with casualties mounting in Gaza.

In a statement to the House of Commons this week, Mr Starmer both denounced the “terrorism on an unimaginable scale” Israel had been subjected to while also adding “Hamas are not the Palestinian people and the Palestinian people are not Hamas” and calling for humanitarian corridors and for civilian lives to be protected.

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In the wake of the resignation of the Kelvin leaders, Scottish Labour struck a similar tone, noting “only when all life is treated as equal can we achieve peace”.

Both Mr Starmer and Mr Sarwar would probably prefer just not to talk about it – but at the grassroots level, the calls for meaningful action are only growing louder.