Muslims' bond with Labour stretched to breaking point over Gaza

As the party wrestles with candidates stepping out of line over Israel, MPs such as Wes Streeting face a challenge from independents

Zuber Naqvi at his dry cleaners in north-east London. He said he won't vote for Labour MP Wes Streeting, due to his stance on Gaza. The National
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Standing in the door of his family’s dry-cleaning business in north-east London, puffing on a cigarette, Zuber Naqvi is keen to share his views on his local Labour MP Wes Streeting, whose constituency office is just around the corner.

As he walks inside and stands behind the counter, Mr Naqvi explains why after a lifetime of support for the Labour Party, its decision not to call for a ceasefire in Gaza means he won’t be backing them at the upcoming general election that will almost certainly take place this year.

“There’s been protest after protest after protest and you would assume they would acknowledge some of that,” the 40-year-old told The National.

“When I see the images from Gaza it makes me very emotional and sad. Kids are dying and there’s nothing we as individuals can do about it but politicians are in a position to do something about it.

“I don’t think that Wes Streeting has represented his constituents in the way that he’s supposed to. For the first time I won’t be voting Labour.”

The Labour leadership’s decision not to call for a ceasefire in Gaza has led to tension with many in its rank-and-file and to resignations among councillors. Senior party members have tied themselves in knots trying to follow a party line that jars with many.

The prospect of independent challengers comes after Labour’s woes in Rochdale, in northern England, in which it has been forced to withdraw support for its local candidate Azhar Ali.

He was recorded suggesting that Israel had deliberately allowed the October 7 Hamas assault to take place to give it the green light to invade Gaza, comments for which he apologised.

Mr Ali then blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian MP.

Meanwhile, former Labour MP Graham Jones was recorded using derogatory words about Israel at the same meeting that led to the withdrawal of support for Mr Ali.

He is also alleged to have suggested that British people who volunteer to fight with the Israeli military should be “locked up”.

There are now reports of “well-funded” independents preparing to take on local Labour candidates in areas with large Muslim populations, a prospect senior party figures are “taking very seriously”.

Mr Streeting, who is the party’s shadow health secretary, is facing the challenge from a British Palestinian, Leanne Mohamad, who has been chosen by the Redbridge Community Action Group, which posted videos of what it says are “hundreds” of its supporters gathered outside Mr Streeting's constituency office.

Already, the MP has become a lightning rod for anger at his party with images showing a poster with the words “Vote for Genocide, Vote for Labour” taped over adverts at a bus stop, opposite a Jewish bakery.

Gaza anger

Ms Mohamad, 23, who went to school and was a youth worker in the Ilford area, told The National there was anger at how Mr Streeting “used a coalition that included large numbers of Muslims to get elected” but has not called for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“My neighbours, friends, and associates from all backgrounds and not just Muslims, tell me how angry they are at seeing thousands of innocent Palestinians being slaughtered by Israel, while politicians like Mr Streeting simply stand by and watch,” she said.

“People are genuinely fed-up of Westminster-based career politicians like Wes who are unable to stand up to their party bosses and speak the truth.”

While protesting is “all very good” she said that to “make real long-term change you must stand up for your principles and there’s no better place than at the ballot box”.

Ms Mohamad, whose grandparents were forced out of their homes in the city of Haifa in 1948 and made refugees, is a graduate of King’s College London. She currently works in human rights and policy advocacy.

While Mr Streeting’s stance on Gaza is the immediate focus of the campaign, Ms Mohamad said there are other issue she feels can galvanise voters such as the NHS, investment in infrastructure, crime, antisocial behaviour and living standards.

“They think traditional Labour voters have no choice but to back them, but that’s not true and my campaign is here to offer a real break from the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of British politics,” she said.

Mr Streeting’s Ilford North constituency lies in the sprawling suburbia of north-east London, just under an hour from the city centre. The rows of houses and small clusters of shops, criss-crossed by dual carriageways, stand in contrast to the bustling heart of London.

It has a Muslim population of 23 per cent, which puts it outside the top 20 constituencies with the highest number of Muslims.

Local people praise their MP for his hard work for the constituency, his resilience in battling cancer and the success he’s achieved after coming from an impoverished background in London’s East End.

Mr Naqvi is one of them, and describes his MP as a “nice fella”. But that doesn’t cut it with him when it comes to casting his vote and he instead explains who he will be backing.

“I think there’s a local woman who will be running called Leanne Mohamad and I think I’ll be voting for her. From what I’ve read about her, she wants to stand for the people Labour are not standing for.”

Talk of politics is interrupted when Mr Naqvi attends to a customer with a suit he needs cleaned for a wedding, complaining that an extra couple of inches around the waist means he’s struggling to get into it. There are words of sympathy for all present before the customer leaves, and then it’s back to Labour.

Mr Naqvi said his mind began to change about the party when its leader Keir Starmer appeared to say during an interview that Israel had the right withdraw power and water from Gaza.

“That’s not something that anyone should do, but he agreed with it – and he was for it,” he said.

“In politics, you have to represent the people who voted for you but if you listen to only one side and not take into account other people's opinions, then you’re pushing them to one side.”

Mr Streeting grew up in a council house and studied at Cambridge University, where he was president of the National Union of Students.

He worked briefly as a public sector consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers before making politics his full-time career, both as a local councillor and working for the Labour Party.

The MP has said people want his party to be “louder and clearer” about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and that Israel has “serious questions” to answer about its military action but has not backed a ceasefire.

Mr Streeting and the Labour Party did not respond to requests for comment.

Sunder Katwala director of British Future, a non-partisan UK think tank, said he believes the Labour leadership will be taking such challenges “very seriously”, though independents standing in local council elections pose more of a threat.

“There are several hundred council wards where the majority of the voters would be Muslim, compared to just three Westminster constituencies,” he told The National.

But, he added, Labour is fortunate in that this is happening when the party is in opposition and with a commanding lead in the polls, rather than when it’s in government and struggling with the electorate.

Mr Katwala explained that in the long term, Labour is facing a loosening of its ties with the UK’s ethnic minorities, most of whom still support the party. It’s a trend that was already under way before the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Falling out of love with Labour

“Labour has had extremely broad support from most ethnic and faith minorities in Britain for 40 or 50 years and it still has about two thirds support across minority groups,” he said.

“But there is now a much weaker level of association with the Labour Party than it had for the first and second generation of immigrants because it was seen as a party that represented their interests.

“It’s a positive effect of British integration, to some extent, that younger generations don’t start with that level of allegiance.”

When it comes to any new political party picking up their votes, Mr Katwala sees it being a left of centre party with a strong emphasis on social justice and international causes, such as Palestine, rather than a specific Muslim party.

“I think a lot of young Muslims might think that a Muslim party was too narrow to be the vehicle for the changes they want to see,” he said.

Despite Labour’s fears, the prospects for independent candidates standing in Muslim areas being able to take seats off the party are “approximately zero”, says UK elections guru John Curtice, from Strathclyde University.

Prof Curtice said it would take an independent who already has a high profile, like former Labour MP George Galloway – who has long association with the Palestinian cause – to have any chance of winning a seat.

Mr Galloway, who was also an MP for the Respect Party, is standing in the Rochdale by-election next week.

“I see these reports about well-funded independent candidates, and we’ll have to wait and see, Prof Curtice told The National.

“It might cost Labour one or two per cent of the vote and in very heavily Muslim areas. Most constituencies with a large Muslim population are already very heavily Labour.

“So, if Labour makes somewhat less progress in these seats sure it might be noticeable and people like me will write about it but it’s not clear that it’s going to cost very much in the way of seats.”

Back in Ilford, most of the Muslim voters The National spoke to said they were abandoning Labour.

Speaking outside his shop, also near Mr Streeting’s constituency office, another Labour voter also said he would be abandoning the party.

“People have demonstrated, but they’ve done nothing and I don’t want to vote for them again.,” said the 53-year-old, who asked not to be named. “Where’s their humanity?”

He described Gaza as “the biggest humanitarian disaster we’re facing, and every night we’re seeing more dead but nobody is saying anything about it”.

The man said he was previously a Conservative Party voter but switched sides to back Mr Streeting, who he’s voted for twice.

But now he says “if there’s an independent then maybe I’ll vote for them”.

Aneesa Saleem, who was leaving a Halal butcher, said: “I voted Labour for the first time because I felt they were more about the people but won’t be now because of the way they’ve responded to the Palestine issue.”

The 24-year-old optometrist said she has been on several pro-Palestinian marches in London, and in the local area “you can see Palestinian flags everywhere, when they’ve not been taken down”.

She said that “in our community where so many people are supporting Palestine” Wes Streeting “should have represented that a lot more”.

“We’re all one and the majority of people you speak to in this community, they all speak very passionately about it.”

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Updated: February 17, 2024, 7:47 AM