British-Palestinian activist: Why I am standing to defeat Labour machine on Gaza

Leanne Mohamad tells The National she is part of a national movement angry at the UK opposition party

Leanne Mohamad in a Palestinian keffiyeh. Photo: Redbridge Community Action Group
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A British–Palestinian activist intent on taking on a senior Labour politician at the next general election said she is tapping into anger about his stance on Gaza, and hopes a national movement of independent candidates will create real change.

Leanne Mohamad is running against Wes Streeting after being selected to run by a local community group which is opposed to the Labour leadership’s decision not to call for an immediate ceasefire in the fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.

Ms Mohamad, 23, told The National why she is running and insisted that while she is “up against the huge Labour machine", which will back Mr Streeting with "big money and resources”, her aim is to win – not just register a protest.

The Ilford North constituency has been held by Mr Streeting since 2015 and he has a majority of about 5,000.

Twenty-three per cent of the electorate is Muslim, which puts it outside the top 20 seats with the highest number of adherents to the faith.

Labour's relations with Muslims members and voters, and its own backbenchers and local councillors, have been put under strain by its position, although party leader Keir Starmer has said “the fighting must stop”.

A vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday on a motion proposed by the Scottish National Party to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza will force Labour to clarify its stance.

Previously, 56 backbenchers defied the party leadership to vote for an SNP amendment to the King's Speech, again calling for an immediate ceasefire.

On Tuesday, Labour's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy called for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" and said that while Israel had the right to defend itself, there has already been a "considerable degrading of Hamas's ability".

Ms Mohamad said in her view Labour has been "out of step" with public opinion since the start of the fighting.

"It's taken five months before they've even considered calling for an immediate ceasefire [which] shows just how untenable their position has been," she said.

"It's only because of pressure by campaigners such as myself and the millions of protesters that the message appears to have got through.

"But it's too little, too late. People tell me they won't support Labour until Palestine is free, but for many more, even that will not suffice and their support for Labour is lost for good.

"They want fundamental change in our political system and that's the message I'm hearing at doorsteps across Ilford North.

"It's why I'm challenging Wes Streeting, and it's why Labour can never be trusted when it comes to justice for Palestinians."

Mr Streeting, a key figure in in the shadow cabinet, said Labour is considering its options over whether to back the SNP's position, but suggested there is little difference between that and Labour's own.

He said Labour was working hard as a potential future government to use diplomatic opportunities and language to achieve its goal of ending the war.

People tell me they won't support Labour until Palestine is free, but for many more, even that will not suffice and their support for Labour is lost for good.
Leanne Mohamad

Ms Mohamad is standing against the shadow health secretary, as part of an reportedly orchestrated campaign by “well-funded” independents preparing to take on local Labour candidates in areas with large Muslim populations.

It is a prospect senior party figures are “taking very seriously”, according to one expert.

Her candidacy comes after large protests in London and across the UK against Israel’s war in Gaza, at which she has spoken.

“People can protest, like so many have done these past five months, and that’s all very good but 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 said.

“Everyone expects Labour and Keir Starmer to form the next government, especially after the debacle of the Conservatives these past few years.

"But Labour under his leadership have ditched all the policies that would have transformed Britain, and simply parrot whatever the Conservatives say.

“There is no difference between the two major political parties and it’s also why this national movement of independents is such an exciting way forward for so many people, not just here in Ilford North but across London and the rest of the UK.”

Ms Mohamad said “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”.

After Mr Streeting refused to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, while Israel commits what she calls genocide, she decided "our political leaders no longer represent the views of the people that elect them".

Ms Mohamad was chosen by the Redbridge Community Action Group to stand as its candidate in January.

The group calls itself “a grassroots organisation driven by the Redbridge community for the Redbridge community”.

It has posted videos of activists with Palestinian flags protesting outside Mr Streeting’s office.

While Gaza has been the catalyst for the organisation fielding candidates, Ms Mohamad said she also hopes to gain support of voters concerned about issues such as the National Health Service, crime and anti-social behaviour, and falling living standards.

"They think traditional Labour voters have no choice but to back them, but that’s not true," she said.

Ms Mohamed, whose grandparents were forced to leave the city of Haifa after the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, emphasises her pride in being from the local area and a British Palestinian.

“I grew up in Ilford, went to school here, made friends in the area and crucially this is where I had my major life experiences,” she said.

“As a British Palestinian I am so proud to call Ilford my home. It’s why I worked as a local youth worker, chairing the Youth Committee at my local Ilford Youth Centre. We helped local children to flourish and make the best use of their talents.

“I have something which they [opponents] don’t, and that is my determination to convince the electors to make a break from career politicians like Mr Streeting, and instead back me, an ordinary Ilford resident who wants real change.

“I will fight for every vote, and I will campaign with all I have, to make sure the people’s voice is heard and that my campaign is successful, so we get a true representative of the people of Ilford North into Parliament at the next election.”

Ahead of the vote, Mr Streeting used broadcast interviews on Monday to hit out at Israel's tactics in Gaza, saying there had been a "disproportionate loss of civilian life".

"We want to see a ceasefire, of course we do,” he said, while giving broadcast interviews.

"And we have been increasingly concerned, as the wider international community has been, with the disproportionate loss of civilian life in Gaza.

"Israel has a responsibility to get its hostages back, every country in the world has a right to defend itself.

"But I think what we have seen are actions that go beyond reasonable self-defence and also call into question whether Israel has broken international law.

"The ICJ [International Court of Justice] is now investigating and we take all of that seriously."

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Updated: February 21, 2024, 10:23 AM