Trust is lost': Muslim voters unhappy with Labour's stance on Gaza war

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    Trust is lost': Muslim voters unhappy with Labour's stance on Gaza war

    (Guardian) Walsall Central mosque. In November, eight Labour councillors in Walsall resigned over the party leader Keir Starmer's stance on Gaza. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

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(Guardian) Walsall Central mosque. In November, eight Labour councillors in Walsall resigned over the party leader Keir Starmer's stance on Gaza. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

At Walsall Central mosque, a redbrick building on a street of Victorian terraces in the West Midlands market town, the imam, Murthaza Qadri, has reflected on the changing views of his congregation over the past few months.

"There was never much talk about politics before but now everyone cares, lots of people are speaking up,” he said last week. "We’ve been brought up in an environment where we were blindly supporters of Labour, old and young. But now people are opening their eyes a bit more.”

The issue that has opened the eyes of Muslims in Walsall and elsewhere across the country is Labour’s failure to explicitly demand a permanent ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas. The party’s position has shifted in recent weeks but, with more than 25,000 casualties in Gaza and a growing humanitarian catastrophe, it is too little and too late for many Muslims.

The anguish and anger felt by Muslims in the UK over the Israel-Gaza war could spell trouble for Labour at the next election. An opinion poll carried out in November by Savanta found strong support for Labour among Muslim voters, with 64% backing the party. But more than 40% said Keir Starmer’s response to the war had made them less likely to vote Labour, while 20% said it had made them more likely to do so. One in three Muslim voters rated the conflict among their top three issues in deciding who to vote for.

In Ilford North, local activists have selected a candidate to challenge the 5,198 majority of the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting specifically on Labour’s position on the Gaza war. Nearly a quarter of the population is Muslim.

In Walsall, where 11.3% of the population is Muslim, eight Labour councillors who resigned from the party over the issue in November are considering putting up a candidate at the general election.

This month Ammar Anwar, a Labour councillor in Kirklees, Yorkshire, and a lifelong member of the party, announced his resignation in tears and with a Palestinian flag draped around his neck. Eleven Labour councillors in Burnley resigned from the party in November, 10 resigned in Oxford, eight quit in Blackburn, and there have been others.

Aftab Nawaz, one of those who resigned in Walsall, said he had been inundated with messages of support from the Muslim community. "We had calls from all over the place, not just in Walsall. People were coming up to us and hugging us and saying well done, you’ve stood up for what you believe, you’ve stood up for us and you’ll always be our heroes. We’re not heroes,” he said.

Nawaz said he had been unhappy with the party’s creeping "central control”, but it was its response to the war that pushed him over the edge. "We saw a side of the Labour party which we didn’t expect,” he said. "If we are sitting at home or in our mosques praying for the people of Palestine, yet we represent a party whose leader isn’t saying that this should stop, we ourselves become complicit.”

He said walking away from Labour had been a difficult decision. His father, who came to work in the West Midlands metal-bashing factories, had been supported by Labour and the union movement at a time when ethnic minorities were being targeted by the National Front.

"We were all Labour people and we always trusted that the Labour party would do the right thing. People voted for the Labour party without even blinking, they wouldn’t read the manifesto,” he said.

He joined the party in 2000 and spent many hours campaigning as a paper candidate in wards that the party had little chance in winning – "we used to 
"You’d go out in the middle of the snow and rain deliver leaflets and get people’s doors smashed in your face because they didn’t want to know anything,” he said. "But it was something that enriched my life, and I’ll never regret being part of the Labour party. We’re still Labour people. I’ve said to people it’s not that we’ve left the Labour party, the Labour party has left us.”

Qadri, the imam, who has been a party member for six years but is unlikely to vote for Labour in the next election, was confident he had a good insight into the views of the hundreds of people who attend Walsall Central mosque each week.

Younger people in particular were influenced by what they saw about the conflict on social media, he said. They were emailing their MPs to demand answers and passing the message on to older generations.

That message appeared to be cutting through in Walsall. Nahid Ahmed, 54, a former Labour party member of 15 years who left the party over its stance on Palestine, said he would vote for an independent candidate or abstain. "Labour thinks Muslims are going to vote [for them] anyway, but they have to understand this has changed now,” he said.

Even if Starmer explicitly backed an immediate and permanent ceasefire now after months of death and destruction, it may not bring Muslim votes back into the fold.

"As things are getting worse in Palestine, you would expect their sense of moral duty, their humane side, to have come out and it hasn’t. That trust is lost,” said Sajad, 40, who declined to give her surname.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific atrocities committed by Hamas and others on 7 October, the Labour leadership offered full-throated support for Israel. In an interview on LBC radio a few days later, Starmer said Israel had the right to withhold power and water in Gaza. His words – which he later sought to clarify – shocked many Labour supporters.

In response, three senior frontbenchers – Streeting, Shabana Mahmood and Louise Haigh – warned in a shadow cabinet meeting that Labour was at risk of losing Muslim votes.

The following month, 56 Labour MPs rebelled against the leadership by backing a Scottish National party amendment to the king’s speech that explicitly called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war. Eight frontbenchers resigned their posts.

Despite his shadow cabinet warning, Streeting was not among them. In his Ilford North constituency, protests were held outside the MP’s constituency office, and a grassroots organisation, the Redbridge Community Action Group (RCAG), was formed.

"Trust has irretrievably broken down between British Muslims and the Labour party. It’s a fundamental break,” said Vaseem Ahmed, a spokesperson for the RCAG. Leading Labour MPs had shown a "lack of empathy to the 75-year suffering of the Palestinian people … For them, Palestinian lives matter much less than others,” he said.

This month the RCAG held a meeting to choose an independent candidate to contest the general election. "We are proud to live in a democracy and we are using democracy to make our views known,” Ahmed said.

The candidate, Leanne Mohamad, a 23-year-old British-Palestinian who grew up in the constituency, said: "It’s clear to me and countless others that Labour no longer represents the interests of working people. British Muslims are aghast at what is taking place in Gaza and they have marched in their millions to make this point.”

She said Labour had failed "to hold Israel to account for its actions and they still haven’t called for an immediate ceasefire in order to save lives. The sheer hypocrisy between their position on Ukraine when compared to Gaza lays bare what many, including Muslims, now see as a party devoid of any principles whatsoever.”

Mahmoud Rauf, 77, a retired accountant who has lived in the area for more than 40 years and is a lifelong Labour supporter, said he had previously canvassed for Streeting but would not do so again, and may not even vote Labour at the next election.

"Wes Streeting might have a good bashing when the election comes because this area [is home to] a lot of supporters from the Palestinian side,” he said. "I don’t support [him] any more. I don’t see that he’s playing fair.”

Another accountant, Imtyaz Vakil, 54, a Labour voter who switched to the Conservatives after the Iraq war, said he would never again vote for either party. He had joined RCAG and would be supporting Mohamed in the election, saying her candidacy was "the first piece in the whole jigsaw”.

Political parties would ignore Muslim voices at their peril, he said. "It’s the second, third generation of Muslims here and we’re growing. We’re not just going to sit back and accept that.”

In recent weeks, senior Labour figures have toughened their language in response to the scale of killing and destruction in Gaza. Last month, Streeting spoke of the need for a "sustainable ceasefire” amid "intolerable civilian casualties”. On Tuesday, Starmer told the Commons: "What is needed in Gaza is a humanitarian truce now, a sustainable ceasefire to stop the killing of innocent civilians.”

Streeting told the Guardian: "For the last nine years I’ve consistently fought for all communities in Redbridge, including launching the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims … [and] campaigning for the recognition of a Palestinian state and the end of human rights abuses. The next election is a choice between five more years of Conservative failure or change for the better with Labour.” This article was amended on 30 January 2024 to remove text stating incorrectly that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had registered a new pro-Palestine party.

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