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UK elections 2024: Clashing pro-Gaza candidates boost Labour's chances in Blackburn

Craig Murray of the Workers Party and independent Adnan Hussain are standing against Labour incumbent Kate Hollern, splitting the Muslim vote
Workers Party candidate Craig Murray's campaign headquarters (Imran Mulla/MEE)
Workers Party candidate Craig Murray's campaign headquarters (Imran Mulla/MEE)
By Imran Mulla and Peter Oborne in Blackburn, England

There’s no missing Craig Murray’s campaign headquarters at Blackburn’s Mi Chaii cafe. The facade is emblazoned with celebrity endorsements.

Amaar Hijazi, Palestine’s deputy foreign minister, proclaims: "Craig Murray has been for decades an important international voice for Palestine." 

Roger Waters of Pink Floyd declares: "We are in an existential battle for the human soul. Vote for human rights. Vote for Craig Murray."

Stella Assange, the wife of Julian Assange, says: "Craig Murray has been a loyal friend and constant support for our family."

Murray, a former British diplomat, says he is standing for parliament on 4 July in response to Israel's war on Gaza and the "appalling pro-genocide stance" of the opposition Labour party, which is on course to win the election. 

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Standing for George Galloway's Workers Party of Britain, he also insists that he is "part of a wider movement in England which is seeking to challenge the two-party conservative duopoly".

The northwestern ex-industrial town of Blackburn has been represented by Labour MPs for 69 years, since 1955, including cabinet ministers Barbara Castle and Jack Straw. It was said that they used to weigh the votes rather than count them.

Kate Hollern won 64.9 percent on the vote for Labour in 2019. But Labour leader Keir Starmer’s early support for Israel’s war on Gaza has driven away Muslim voters, who make up 35 percent of the local electorate, as well as many others appalled by the conflict.

In May's local elections, Labour lost a third of its vote share in areas with Muslim majorities.

In theory, Murray could have a chance of victory. But in practice, he has run into a problem all too familiar to prominent outsiders parachuting into a constituency: fierce local opposition. 

Two rival independent candidates are running against Labour - also on a pro-Gaza platform.

Taxi driver and local social media sensation Tiger Patel, an independent councillor who left the Conservative Party over its Gaza policy, wants the job. 

Yet solicitor Adnan Hussain may represent a more formidable challenge. The 34-year-old, who runs a local legal practice, is backed by a group of former Labour councillors who quit the party over its Gaza policy. In the local elections in early May the group became the borough’s second-largest party.

If either of these parliamentary candidates ran with the full backing of Blackburn’s Muslim community, they would have a serious chance of becoming an MP. But if all three stand, they will gift the seat to Labour. 

An increasingly bitter campaign

Murray says he is only standing because he was invited to by the independent councillors. But they challenge this account. 

On Friday, Middle East Eye attended a showdown between Murray and independent councillor Waqar Hussain at the latter's house.

After lunch, the two sat face to face, discussing the challenges Murray was facing.

The Workers Party candidate was visibly aggrevated by the situation, though he kept calm and courteous. "It's not my usual style to be confrontational in someone's house," he said apologetically.

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Murray said the independent councillors had watched him declare his candidacy and appeared to have no issue, leading him to believe they supported him until Hussain stepped in. Now they back Hussain.

Hussain disagreed with this version of events. He said there seemed to have been a misunderstanding and that the councillors had not accepted Murray as their favoured candidate.

The men shook hands and embraced at the end of the meeting, but the issue was far from resolved. In fact, the campaign is descending further into acrimony. 

Murray has leaned heavily on his history of supporting the Palestinian cause. He says he used his experience as a former diplomat to advise the Palestinian Authority to sign the Rome Statute that recognises the International Criminal Court (ICC). Without that, he argues, the ICC proescutor would never have sought an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He also says he played a role in South Africa’s decision to accuse Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice, saying his articles on the use of the Genocide Convention were read by members of South Africa’s government before they decided to bring the case.

But independent candidate Adnan Hussain is not convinced. At his legal practice surrounded by his campaign team, he challenged Murray’s role. “He’s shown no evidence,” Hussain told MEE. “And how does it qualify him to represent the people of Blackburn?”

'Gaza is important but poverty is rising'

Hussain noted that Murray stood unsuccessfully as an “anti-war” candidate in Blackburn against Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw in 2005. 

“Why is he standing here?” Hussain asked, wondering why he was not a candidate in Edinburgh, where he lives.

“I was raised in this community. I talk their language. I know their struggles. Gaza is important and it's the reason why I stood. But poverty is a massive issue too and so is healthcare,” he said. 

Hussain also criticised the Workers Party, because its leader, George Galloway, supports the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has overseen a war that has killed half a million people.

Murray says he is not pro-Assad and Galloway denies being an “Assad apologist”, an accusation regularly levelled at him. 

Craig Murray handing out pamphlets to congregants after Friday prayers at a Blackburn mosque (Imran Mulla/MEE)
Craig Murray handing out pamphlets to congregants after Friday prayers at a Blackburn mosque (Imran Mulla/MEE)

After Friday prayers, Murray was seen handing out leaflets to worshippers outside a local mosque, the Masjid e Tauheedul Islam.

Most people took a flyer and some stopped to talk to Murray. Others were gathered outside the mosque's doors engaged in their own conversation, paying little attention to the candidate.

One worshipper, Shiraz, lamented that the anti-Labour vote was being split. “There’s no unity,” he told MEE. “It’s very sad.”

Another, Ilyas, said he has lived in Blackburn for 50 years. He told MEE he supported Labour all that time, until the current war on Gaza began. Now he plans to vote for Murray. 

A third person told MEE he believed that Blackburn had been betrayed by Starmer and that “we will never get a chance like this again” to punish Labour.

“The opportunity is there to defeat [Labour] but it needs all the independents to come up with a unified candidate. I seriously think we can win if we get together,” said the worshipper, who wished to remain anonymous. 

'Egregious and difficult to forgive'

The Muslim Vote, a campaign that supports pro-Palestinian candidates, endorsed Hussain’s candidacy on 3 June on the grounds that the local Muslim community was behind him.

Murray accused the campaign of “racial discrimination”. Galloway, who has made a career out of courting Muslim votes, called the move “egregious and difficult to forgive”.

In response, the campaign said it remains "very respectful" of Murray's "contributions to the Palestinian cause and for human rights, and continue to believe he would have been an excellent candidate should the community have endorsed him”.

The conflict likely spells good news for Labour's Hollern.

She defied the party leadership in November to vote for a ceasefire in Gaza in parliament. In March, she backed a call for the UK government to implement a "Homes for Palestinians" scheme to help people fleeing Gaza settle in Britain. 

The opposition she now faces is primarily a response to the Labour Party’s position on the war, not her own. 

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Hollern told MEE her support for the Palestinian cause is "unwavering" and that she has "consistently raised Palestine in parliament".

"An independent candidate will promise everything and deliver nothing," she said, describing herself as the "only candidate with a proven record for delivering on all the issues that matter to our community".

Blackburn is not the only constituency where multiple pro-Palestinian candidates have entered the fray.

In London’s Bethnal Green and Stepney, two candidates - Tasnime Akunjee and Ajmal Masroor - put themselves forward as independents against the Labour incumbent Rushanara Ali. 

But there the conflict is now resolved. After several days of long meetings between the two candidates, in early June Akunjee announced he was stepping down to give Masroor a better shot at winning the seat.

It remains to be seen whether the contest in Blackburn will go the same way.

"I’m not sure if this has been said loudly enough," tweeted political scientist and popular podcaster Muhammad Jalal on Sunday, "but Blackburn's community has to sit both Adnan Hussain and Craig Murray in a room, and a decision needs to be made on one candidate.

"Otherwise, you are handing this election to Labour's Kate Hollern," he added.

Meanwhile, tensions are heating up between Labour and the independents.

On Saturday, Labour canvassers were videoed approaching Hussain and his campaigners. A scuffle ensued between some of them and Hussain was seen trying to defuse the situation. Hollern, who was nearby, stayed away from the scene. 

Hollern told the Lancashire Telegraph the incident was due to “intimidatory behaviour” by Hussain’s canvassers, while Hussain said he was “horrified by what I and my team were subjected to by the local Labour Party on the streets of Blackburn”.

As election day draws closer, pressure is mounting for a unified pro-Palestinian vote. 

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