Remona Aly
Wednesday 15 November 2023 i Newspaper

‘Who do we vote for now?’

‘Who do we vote for now?’ Inside Labour’s Gaza crisis as Starmer faces threat of new revolt

It was a meeting designed to mend fences, to stem the tide of Labour councillors resigning over Sir Keir Starmer’s stance on Israel’s action in Gaza.

The party was anxious to show it was, perhaps belatedly, taking their concerns seriously. It had asked top brass, in the form of deputy leader Angela Rayner, to try to reach a rapprochement with local politicians still furious at their leader’s apparent backing for the Israeli siege of Gaza, and his refusal to call for a ceasefire.

Instead, for Councillor Mustafa Desai, the 20-minute Zoom meeting that he and a group of Labour colleagues from Blackburn had pushed for with Ms Rayner was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

They asked her “Is Keir Starmer going to change his stance?” he told i. “The response was totally inadequate; it was a standard scripted response. I was frustrated and angry.”

So, after 13 years as a Labour councillor, latterly as an executive member for Adult Social Care and Health, he resigned from the party. Six more Blackburn Labour councillors have followed him since. And last week there was another wave of resignations as 11 councillors from nearby Burnley left Labour.

They join a growing tally from councils across the country including Oxford, Birmingham, Bradford, Gloucester, Stroud, Manchester, Cambridge, Nottingham and at least four London boroughs – who have decided that Labour’s position on Gaza is so far from their own that they can no longer represent the party.

Added pressure came for Sir Keir last week when Bradford East MP Imran Hussain resigned from his front bench position as shadow Minister for the New Deal for Working People so that he could be free to call for a ceasefire. And the divisions the conflict has caused within Labour were on display on Monday when former leader Jeremy Corbyn – still a party member – condemned the Hamas attack on October 7 but refused 15 times to follow the lead of his successor by describing the group as terrorists.

Sir Keir was warned he would “destroy” his party and see as many as 10 more shadow ministers resign, unless he ordered MPs to abstain on today on an expected Parliamentary vote over a call for an “immediate” ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. And the threat of a new revolt remains.

But it is not just politicians. Party insiders, exiles and community activists have told that increasing numbers of Muslims who have been habitual Labour voters feel alienated by the failure to call for a ceasefire.

Party leaders, still anxious to ensure Labour is not open to charges of antisemitism, have been attempting to heal the divisions and calling for a humanitarian pause. Last week Ms Rayner told i: “I understand colleagues who are saying we need to immediately get this situation under control”.

Other senior figures have been taking a harder line on Israel this week with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves calling on Monday for it to “show restraint”. But she stopped short of advocating for an immediate ceasefire and until the Labour leadership makes that call the internal unrest seems unlikely to be quelled.

According to one former Labour insider in Tower Hamlets, east London, many Muslims in Britain increasingly feel like “political refugees”, because the main political parties do not represent their views on the need for ceasefire in Gaza. “We have no home,” he says. “We have to make our own home.”

Meanwhile, a senior official from the Labour Muslim Network, which represents the views and voices of Muslims in the party, tells that conversations they have had suggest that people from across the UK are “abandoning the idea of voting for Labour in droves”.

And they say that for those who have decided to stay on, Sir Keir’s stance on Gaza is making life difficult for Labour activists in Muslim neighbourhoods. They are scared of the reception they will receive on doorsteps if they try to justify their leader’s position.

“Anyone associated with Labour is being [verbally] attacked,” says the official. “Canvassers are terrified to go door knocking.”

They trace the difficulties back to Sir Keir’s now infamous Labour conference LBC interview last month when he was asked about a siege in Gaza with power and water being withheld and answered: “Israel does have that right”.

The Labour Muslim Network official says it has been “firm and strong from the beginning, in telling the party leadership that Muslims were not being represented”. “But there has been a denial from [Sir Keir] him on how serious this would become,” they told i.

“Where there are areas of high Muslim populations, this could seriously affect local voting.”

Pollsters have suggested that it will not actually leave Labour facing a significant hit at the next election. Chris Hopkins, political research director at polling firm Savanta, has told i that the Gaza controversy is unlikely to “move things much”.

i analysis has found there are more than 50 Labour seats in England where the estimated number of Muslim voters is larger than the party’s 2019 majority in the constituency.

It would be wrong to assume that all Muslims in these constituencies already vote Labour (though many do – all 20 seats with the largest Muslim populations are currently Labour held) or that they will vote as a block and desert Labour en masse. However, in 19 of these seats the number of estimated Muslim voters (based on 2021 census figures) is more than twice the size of Labour’s majority, suggesting a potential vulnerability over Gaza.

In eight seats, the number of estimated Muslim voters is more than three times Labour’s majority: Dagenham and Rainham, Oldham East and Saddleworth, Bradford South, Batley and Spen, Walsall South, Halifax, Leicester East and Ilford North.

A campaign by George Galloway focused on Muslim voters in the 2021 Batley and Spen by-election, when Labour came within 400 votes of losing to the Conservatives, also demonstrates how other parties could be let in. The Workers Party leader came third, but won more than 8,000 votes cutting Labour’s majority from 3,525 to 323.

But it is not just the next election where the Gaza controversy could prove an issue. Labour insiders are also concerned about the long-term damage it will have. “I am worried this will turn entire generations from voting for the Labour Party,” the network official said.

“Muslims worry about the same domestic issues as everyone else – housing, employment, education, poverty, but the Gaza crisis has eclipsed domestic policies, because the trust is now gone. Many people will stay home, unmotivated to vote at all.”

The importance of the Gaza crisis to British Muslims was clearly visible at a packed “emergency” public meeting held in Bethnal Green, east London earlier this month. There was anger hanging in the air as more than 600 turned out on a dismal soggy evening to sit in a large hall usually rented out for weddings. It was organised at a few days’ notice as a strictly non-party-political event – solely focused on the plight of people in Gaza.

But as the sombre mood turned into fury at the failure of world leaders to act on a humanitarian disaster, Labour’s position inevitably crept in. One audience member, visibly incensed, asked what the people could do to push those responsible to be accountable for “war crimes”, drawing applause from the audience. She then said: “The Muslim vote has been historically known to always vote Labour. We are not going to do Tories, we cannot do Labour. Who do we vote for?”

‘A new kind of politics is needed’

Smaller political parties are already touting for the votes of those disillusioned by Labour’s position on Gaza. Several sources suggest it might be the Greens who are best placed to benefit.

“I can’t see where else to go,” says Asif Mahmud, a community activist in Blackburn considering leaving Labour. “The Green Party are the only party that called for a ceasefire from day one.”

Shahin Ashraf, deputy Leader of Solihull’s Green Party, suggests it is ready to help out. “I’ve talked to concerned voters, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and they agree that a new kind of politics is needed, especially when those in power don’t see the humanitarian merits of a ceasefire,” she says.

George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain is also putting out feelers. Last month the party wrote to more than 4,000 Labour local councillors offering them “an alternative”, and saying it “stands ready to be the conduit for the fury felt by millions about the horror unfolding in Palestine”.

Mr Galloway has taken Parliamentary seats with large Muslim populations from Labour twice before – in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and in Bradford West in 2012 – standing for the now-defunct Respect Party.

Two years ago he lost but decimated Labour’s majority in the Batley and Spen by-election. But activists i has spoken doubts whether Mr Galloway can succeed again.

“Galloway has too much baggage,” says Mr Mahmud. “He’s lost kudos, he’s not the same as he used to be. I’m not convinced that his new party will have much traction within the community.”

Salma Yaqoob, a former leader of the Respect Party, who unsuccessfully stood as an independent in Bradford West in 2017 – might be seen as another potential candidate to take on Labour.

She won’t say when i asks her if she plans to stand anywhere. But she describes the current situation as “resonant of the Iraq war scenario” with people calling for a ceasefire unrepresented by the two main parties.

“There is more anger and a sense of betrayal at Labour as Muslims had little expectation from the Conservative party,” Ms Yaqoob says. “It’s an absolute certainty that Muslims will desert the Labour Party.

“There is talk everywhere of how people will mobilise to ensure that Labour do not win. Labour voters are being taken for granted, the younger and older generation are both distressed at being ignored on this issue. Labour don’t understand the depth of feeling right now.”

Ajmal Masroor, the imam and broadcaster who helped to organise the meeting, predicts an “explosion of independent candidates up and down the country”.

“I’m hearing it everywhere,” he tells i. “For many people like me who are confidently Muslim and proudly British, we are not finding a home in British politics today. We have been alienated, marginalised, cancelled. We are being pushed to set up our own.”

Mr Masroor, who stood as a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2010, says there is no national co-ordination or concerted plan. But he adds: “There doesn’t need to be one. This is happening organically.

“People are looking for candidates to dislodge Keir Starmer, and they are saying they are ready to fund them. They are calling him a war criminal. Labour is in big trouble.”

Talks about who will challenge Labour and where are at an early stage. But a separate source told i: “I can tell you that discussions are definitely happening in places like Birmingham, Bradford, Luton, Leicester, Blackburn, and London over putting up candidates for Westminster.”

Mr Masroor believes “the Muslim vote will shake up the political landscape” and thinks it could unseat Labour MPs in at least 25 constituencies.

And the former Labour insider from Tower Hamlets, who has worked closely with Sir Keir and his team, is convinced the leader’s stance on Gaza will cost him electorally.

“There is palpable anger in the Muslim community,” he says. “People hate him… I think the rise of independent candidates will take out Labour strongholds across London and the UK. Muslims could potentially cause a hung parliament.”

He says independent candidates wanting to stand against Labour will need to time to set up the infrastructure they need. But help will be at hand.

“People like me and others, know how party machinery works, and we can bring our expertise into their campaigns,” he says.

Others are reaching less dramatic conclusions about the immediate impact of the Labour leader’s stance on Gaza.

“The Muslim vote isn’t necessarily sufficient to prevent a Labour victory. I don’t believe it is,” says Asif Mahmud, a community activist in Blackburn.

“There are still large sections of the Muslim community who will vote for Labour… Six months is a long time, the general public generally tend to be fickle.”

That doesn’t mean Labour has nothing to worry about. Sir Keir’s party is currently riding high in the polls, with big by-election wins from the Tories under its belt, and looking on course for a majority. But if things tighten, the loss of even a few seats might a big difference.

And as Mr Mahmud concedes things are moving quickly.

“We’re in unchartered waters, it’s unprecedented,” he says. “We are just not clear on where this is going to go. There isn’t any coordination, people are acting on an ad hoc basis, but there is a domino effect.”

He warns that even if Sir Keir’s party wins the next general election it may well be storing up much bigger problems for itself in the future.

“The older generation don’t know anything other than Labour,” he says. “But there is a large young population who won’t follow their elders like we used to. [They follow] social media. Things have changed.”

The Labour Party was contacted for comment.

This article was originally published in i Newspaper on 15th November 2023. To read it click here.