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More than 50 UK Labour lawmakers defy leader to back Gaza ceasefire

PMQs at the House of Commons in London

By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) - British opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer was under pressure on Wednesday after 56 of his lawmakers, including several of his policy team, voted with another opposition party to demand the government call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The so-called amendment - a proposed addition to the government's legislative agenda for the next year - to call for a ceasefire in the violence did not pass and so will not become law. But the backing of so many Labour lawmakers showed the levels of disquiet in the party over the Middle East conflict.

Nearly a third of Labour's 198 lawmakers backed the amendment introduced by the Scottish National Party which said: "(We) call on the government to join with the international community in urgently pressing all parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire".

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Starmer, like Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the United States and the European Union, has called for "humanitarian pauses" to help aid reach Gaza rather than a ceasefire which, they say, would allow Hamas to regroup after its attack on Oct. 7.

Eight members of Starmer's 'shadow' ministerial team left their roles in order to defy the party position.

"On this occasion I must vote with my constituents, my head and my heart," Jess Phillips, who resigned from her policy role to vote for a ceasefire, said in a letter to Starmer posted on the social media platform X.

"I can see no route where the current military action does anything but put at risk the hope of peace and security for anyone in the region now and in the future."

It was a blow to Starmer, who is keen to present his party as united, disciplined and ready for power before a national election expected next year which Labour is on target to win, according to opinion polls.

"I regret that some colleagues felt unable to support the position tonight. But I wanted to be clear about where I stood, and where I will stand," Starmer said after the vote.

Several lawmakers in Britain's parliament have been pressing Starmer and Sunak to call for a ceasefire to end Israel's siege of Gaza, where more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed since the start of war over a month ago.

A large protest by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign outside parliament demanding lawmakers back a ceasefire took place while the vote was going on.

Starmer had put forward a rival amendment, toughening the party's position to say humanitarian pauses "must be longer to deliver humanitarian assistance ... a necessary step to an enduring cessation of fighting as soon as possible".

That amendment was backed by 183 lawmakers, with 290 voting against it.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan, editing by Deepa Babington)