Labour warned it could lose Muslim votes over Gaza stance

Activists angered by reports of Keir Starmer commissioning private polling of Muslims

Labour leader Keir Starmer has come under criticism from pro-Palestinian activists for his cautious stance on the Israel-Gaza war. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

Pro-Palestinian activists in Britain’s Labour Party have warned the leadership it risks losing Muslim votes at the UK’s coming general election because of its position on the Israel-Gaza war.

Campaigners reacted angrily on Wednesday to a report that Labour leader Keir Starmer had commissioned private polling of Muslim voters, accusing him of being led by politics rather than principles.

One member of Labour’s ruling committee said Mr Starmer was being outflanked by the Conservative government on the war, after Foreign Secretary David Cameron hinted at UK recognition of a Palestinian state.

Mr Starmer has tried to perform a balancing act by calling for a two-state solution and condemning the death toll during Israel’s offensive, while evading calls to demand an immediate ceasefire.

His equivocal position has angered some party activists, leading to a handful of resignations and raising questions about whether the dispute will damage the poll lead that has put Labour on the brink of power.

Mish Rahman, who sits on Labour’s National Executive Committee, on Wednesday said he was struggling to convince family members who have “voted Labour all their lives” to back the party again.

A general election date must be set by December, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently indicating it will be in the second half of this year.

“There seems to be a pattern of behaviour where Labour isn’t taking the Muslim support seriously,” Mr Rahman, an aspiring Labour candidate at the election, told LBC radio.

“Every human life is sacred and should be protected from violence. These are basic principles that we should expect from all our politicians, not least the man who wants to be prime minister.”

A report in The Guardian said Labour was conducting private polling and focus groups of Muslim voters as it prepares for an election this year. Party headquarters did not respond to a request for comment.

“It shouldn’t take an opinion poll to stand up for human rights,” Mr Rahman said.

Labour's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has spent recent days calling for recognition of a Palestinian state, pressing for a "surge" of aid into Gaza and telling Israel it must comply with orders from The Hague.

However, shadow Middle East minister Wayne David was criticised for suggesting Labour would only recognise a Palestinian state once negotiations with Israel were under way.

Mr Rahman said Labour had been left behind by Lord Cameron's remarks that recognising Palestine "could be one of the things that helps to make this process irreversible".

The Muslim Vote, an organisation which aims to mobilise pro-Palestinian voters in constituencies with a large Muslim population, criticised Labour for focusing on polling numbers while “we are watching the casualty numbers”.

“We will not support those who have failed to back a ceasefire,” it said.

According to the group’s figures, in 22 out of 650 parliamentary constituencies Muslims make up more than a quarter of the electorate. They include seats in which Labour MPs have relatively small majorities.

About four million Muslims live in the UK. Surveys have shown them strongly backing Labour at past elections, potentially leaving the party vulnerable if part of that voter base deserts Mr Starmer this year.

Diane Abbott, a left-wing MP suspended from Labour in an anti-Semitism row last year, said fears of losing votes were “well founded”. Labour “should reverse its stance on a ceasefire. It is unjustifiable and unpopular,” she said.

Asad Rehman, a director of anti-poverty charity War on Want and a pro-Palestinian activist, said Mr Starmer might face similar problems to US President Joe Biden, who also faces frustration from voters with Arab roots.

“Being complicit with Israel’s war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide might not be going down too well with its base voters including Muslims, black people, young people and those who care about humanity,” he said.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 5:07 PM