In a London borough home to many Muslims, Labour loses appeal over Gaza

Opposition leader Keir Starmer, who has refused to vociferously call for a ceasefire, disappoints those who have traditionally voted for his party.

A demonstrator holds a placard referencing Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as people protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza [File: Hollie Adams/Reuters]By Samira ShacklePublished On 15 Feb 202415 Feb 2024

London, United Kingdom – For Sophia Naqvi, a longtime Labour Party activist, the lightbulb moment came just days into the current Middle East crisis.

On October 11, four days after Hamas killed Israeli citizens and took many captive, Israel was responding with an aggressive campaign of air attacks and blockades. The Labour leader Keir Starmer gave an interview to the radio station LBC.

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In it, he said that Israel had the “right” to cut off power and water from Gaza.

Labour later denied that Starmer had intended to support Israel cutting off supplies to the territory, saying he was instead supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.

But for Naqvi, and many others, the damage was done.

“For me, that party didn’t represent me any more,” Naqvi told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a matter of principle. In the 21st century, how can you say it’s OK to shut down water, food, electricity? He’s talking like that and he’s supposed to be a human rights lawyer.”

Naqvi left the Labour Party.

This was not a decision she took lightly – she had been a member of Labour for a decade. In her local area of Newham, in East London, she had served as a women’s officer for the party.

Her father and grandfather were both involved with Labour, too. But it felt extremely clear.

“There comes a time when there are two paths. You can continue being on the wrong side, or you can leave.”

Twenty days after Starmer’s interview, as more Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, he said it was not the time to call for a ceasefire, but demanded a pause in the fighting to allow for aid to be sent into the besieged strip.

Next week, Starmer faces another major test as a second parliamentary motion calling for an immediate ceasefire will be held.

In Newham, 32 percent of residents are Muslim according to the latest census, making it one of the largest Muslim communities in the United Kingdom.

Its two Labour parliamentarians enjoy large majorities, and until recently, all 60 of its local council seats belonged to Labour.

Soon after leaving the party, Naqvi stood as an independent candidate in a local council by-election and won the seat.

“While I was knocking on doors to campaign, people said, ‘Labour? Go away.’ I said ‘I’m independent,’” she recalled. “I found that a lot of people had the same belief as I do about what’s happening in Gaza, and they wanted to be represented.”

The Hamas-led attack on October 7 killed 1,1139 people. Israel’s months-long assault on Gaza has killed at least 28,663 people and levelled much of the densely populated strip.

The Labour Party has traditionally enjoyed support from the UK’s Muslim communities, and constituencies with large Muslim populations are among the party’s safest seats.

But with Labour refusing to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, there are signs that this could be changing.

A snapshot poll by Savanta in November showed that 41 percent of Muslim voters say they feel more negatively about Labour since the outbreak of the conflict.

A recent poll carried out by Survation for the London Muslim Network found that only 60 percent of Muslims who voted for Labour at the 2019 general election are willing to do so again at the election due this year.

The same poll found that 85 percent of British Muslims said the political position of parties on the Israel-Gaza war would influence their vote.

‘A lot of anger within the community’

It is not clear what impact this will have at the ballot box, given Labour’s dominant position in opinion polls overall.

“The Muslim community by and large nationally tends to stick with Labour and that’s also the case locally in Newham,” said Tahir Talati, an imam and volunteer with the Newham Muslim Forum.

“But there’s a lot of anger within the community. Labour’s stance, their duplicity, statements by Starmer. The party hasn’t understood that the strength of feeling on this issue isn’t temporary.”

Disappointment with Labour’s handling of the crisis in Gaza has exacerbated an existing trend.

In 2021, just a year into Starmer’s leadership, polling that followed a report into Islamophobia in the party found that 55 percent of British Muslims did not “trust the leadership of the Labour party to tackle Islamophobia effectively”.

For some Muslim voters, the party’s refusal to take a clear stance on Gaza – at once calling for humanitarian relief while simultaneously supporting Israel – compounds their sense of not being listened to.

“It feels like we don’t matter, like Labour thinks, ‘Oh the Muslims are going to vote for us whatever happens because they have nowhere else to go politically’, and so that’s an excuse not to listen to our voices,” said Ali Azhar, a cafe manager in Stratford, one of Newham’s main hubs.

He plans to abstain.

“I’ve always voted Labour, but to be honest, at this rate, I just won’t bother voting at all.”

While this trend is unlikely to keep Labour out of power, there is some nervousness among individual Labour legislators who represent constituencies with large Muslim populations.

A website called theMuslimVote.co.uk suggests which candidates to back in different areas. It says it is “focused on seats where the Muslim vote can influence the outcome” and will not back anyone “who voted against or abstained on the ceasefire vote”.

It lists a variety backers, including NGOs, community groups and Muslim-run businesses.

“It used to be the case that if you put a Labour symbol on a lamp-post, people would vote for it, but that’s changing,” said Naqvi. “Labour used to be a party for social justice, a working-class party, so we expect more from them than from the Conservatives.”

In Newham, Talati said that the two Labour members of Parliament have handled the issue very differently.

Stephen Timms has “been fantastic on this issue”, raising Gaza in parliament and communicating with his Muslim constituents.

By contrast, Lyn Brown, the other parliamentarian, has reportedly not responded to a request for a meeting by Muslim community organisations.

“If it was in our control and we had a credible independent candidate, the community would vote for them,” said Talati.

“But it would require a massive, organised local campaign which I don’t think anyone in Newham has the appetite for.”

What many Muslim voters appear to share is a sense that they are not being heard by the party they have long supported.

“Nobody likes the Tories but we are not going to be voting for Keir Starmer,” said Talati.

“We know that most likely he’s going to come into power – but he’s not going to come into power on the back of our votes.”

Source: Al Jazeera