Starmer's Gaza stance turned me away from Labour, says Muslim election candidate

Labour is facing challenges from independent candidates like Sophia Naqvi

Sophia Naqvi, the Newham Independents candidate for the West Ham and Beckton constituency in East London, listens to a health worker. Photo: Sophia Naqvi
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Listening to the leader of the UK’s Labour party, Keir Starmer, talking about Gaza was the moment Sophia Naqvi realised it was time to quit the party after more than a decade as a member.

In an interview that stretched Labour's relations with many of Britain’s Muslims to breaking point, Mr Starmer suggested it was acceptable for Israel to withhold power and water from the territory.

That was back in October, just three days after Hamas attacked Israel, and now Ms Naqvi is preparing to run in the general election against the party her family have supported for three generations.

“Keir Starmer is supposed to be a human rights lawyer but his comments that Israel could cut off water and those sort of things – where’s the humanity?” she asked The National.

“The comments he made were a real eye-opener. That’s when I realised his policies were basically the same as the Conservatives.”

Ms Naqvi, a mother-of-four who works as a teaching assistant, is standing for the Newham Independents in the West Ham and Beckton constituency, which will be contested for first time in the July 4 ballot.

It is an area that has been solidly Labour for years, sitting in the borough of Newham, in East London, where around a third of the population describe themselves as Muslim.

Also standing as an independent is British-Palestinian Leanne Mohamed, in a nearby constituency, where she is taking on shadow health secretary Wes Streeting.

She is the granddaughter of 1948 Nakba survivors who has spoken at weekly protests in central London against the Israeli attacks on Gaza. She has been critical of the UK “doing deals with Israeli tech companies”. She says she wishes to break the “corrupt two party duopoly to forge an independent path for Britain. She has tweeted her support for former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's decision to stand as an independent, calling him a “principled politician who has fought for justice for Palestinians”.

From councillor to the Commons?

After quitting the Labour party Ms Naqvi won a local council by-election, standing as an independent. She beat a Labour candidate and won 46 per cent of the vote, taking a seat in the council for the first time.

A number of former Labour members now sit as councillors after quitting the party in anger its stance on Gaza.

The Labour leadership’s stance on Gaza has been partly shaped by a desire to undo the damage inflicted on its image when Mr Corbyn was party leader.

The party was embroiled in accusations of anti-Semitism that are widely regarded as contributing to its disastrous defeat in the 2019 general election.

Labour now moves in step with the Conservative government, which in turn has taken its lead from the United States, in being more or less supportive of Israel, though there have been criticisms of the humanitarian effort.

Ms Naqvi accuses the Labour leader of “not listening” and ignoring the “many people in central London who protest every weekend”.

“People are not going to be fooled any more. They're taking our votes for granted,” said Ms Naqvi, whose grandfather migrated from Azad Kashmir in Pakistan to the UK.

Losing votes

Evidence of the effect Mr Starmer’s words on Israel have had manifested itself in local election results earlier this year. In the Greater Manchester town of Oldham, which is 22 per cent Muslim, Labour unexpectedly lost control of the local council.

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a non-partisan think tank, told The National that the “unknown question” is the extent to which Muslim voters will prioritise Gaza ahead of other issues such as the National Health Service or the economy.

While Gaza will “shift some votes” the ultimate decision for Muslim voters would be about whether they want to change the government or not, he said.

“One third of Muslim voters will probably be feeling conflicted between what they would be doing in a general election if Gaza wasn't there and how to balance the international and the domestic.”

As an example of how this could play out, he used the recent West Midlands mayoral race, when a high-profile independent running on a Gaza platform, in an area with a large Muslim population, took votes from Labour.

But in the Police and Crime Commissioner election on the same day, in which there was no independent candidate, Labour's vote held up.

For political analyst Chris Hopkins, whether or not Labour could lose seats to Muslim independents comes down to a simple matter of electoral geography.

He said that while there was “concern” in the Labour leadership after the local elections, the battleground for the general election is different.

“You have to remember that local elections are hugely different,” Mr Hopkins, the director of politics at polling and market research company Savanta, told The National.

“There are no majority-Muslim parliamentary constituencies in the same way there are majority-Muslim wards on local councils,” he said.

“It's far easier to run as an independent candidate in the local elections, and only the highly politically engaged vote in them.

“I think the other thing that's ultimately good news for Labour is that the areas that have higher proportions of Muslim voters tend to be far safer Labour seats, so they can afford to lose votes.

“All of these things lead me to believe that the Israel-Palestine issue probably isn't going to have a huge impact on the next election.

“But, that said, it’s still going to be talked about and it’s still going to cause Labour politicians a headache.”

Ms Naqvi is confident she can beat the Labour, who have yet to choose a candidate, on a platform that takes in traditional Labour policies such as fighting poverty, more funding for health and spending on infrastructure.

“I am definitely confident I can win. Absolutely,” she said.

“When this Gaza situation happened there is a path we can take which is the right or the wrong and as a mother of four I want to be an example for my children.”

Updated: June 06, 2024, 11:58 AM