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UK Labour Party position on Gaza blamed for Oldham election loss

Muslim voters opt for independent candidates critical of Labour's stance, as party loses control of council
Labour leader Keir Starmer speaking at Blackburn cricket club on 3 May 2024 (AFP)

The UK’s Labour Party has lost council seats in Muslim areas of Oldham, as voters punished the party for its stance on the Gaza war in local elections held yesterday. 

Eight seats in the town in the north of England, a council held by Labour since 2011, are now in the hands of independent candidates who have been critical of the time it took Labour to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Labour lost five seats, leaving it with seven, a result that means no political party is in overall control of the council.  

Asked if Israel’s war on Gaza had been a factor in Oldham, Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “There are some places where it’s a very strong factor… I respect that.”

On 20 February, over four months after the war began, following the Hamas-led attacks of 7 October, Labour called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza, reversing its previous backing of Israel's campaign in the besieged territory.

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Early in the war, Starmer provoked anger among large numbers of British Muslim voters, among many others, when he backed Israel’s “right” to military action and its “right” to cut food, electricity, fuel and water supplies to Gaza’s approximately 2.3 million residents.

While Labour enjoyed a very successful night elsewhere in the country, its position on Gaza is expected to impact election results beyond Oldham. 

BBC analysis of the local elections shows a marked decline in Labour support, by 16 percent in council wards with high Muslim populations, due to the party's Gaza stance. The Green Party recorded a 19 percent increase in those wards. 

Labour sources said they expected to lose the election for West Midlands mayor to Conservative incumbent Andy Street because Muslim voters had opted to vote for Akhmed Yakoob, an independent candidate who put Gaza at the centre of his campaign. 

One senior Labour source told the BBC: "It's the Middle East not the West Midlands that will have won Andy Street the mayoralty. Once again, Hamas are the real villains." A Labour spokesperson condemned "this racist quote". 

Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, posted: "Once again I’m deeply disturbed by Islamophobic quotes given to the media by 'Labour sources'. When politicians are confronted with racist bile, it should be immediately condemned. As a party we need to listen to and acknowledge concerns, not hold British Muslims in contempt."

'Gaza is clearly an issue'

Arooj Shah, the Labour leader of Oldham Council, told the BBC: “Gaza is clearly an issue for anyone with an ounce of humanity in them, but we’ve asked for an immediate ceasefire right from the start.”

Shah said the issue of Gaza had been "exploited", resulting in a toxic political environment. She noted, though, that “most northern mill towns have the same kind of issues”. 

'I do think [Gaza has] been a factor in some places, I don't think there's any point in denying that'

Pat McFadden, Labour's campaign coordinator

“We have a rise of independents because people think mainstream parties aren’t the answer,” she said. 

Oldham has, like local authorities across the UK, had its central government funding cut by at least 40 percent since 2010, when the Conservative-led government embarked on its programme of economic austerity.  

Shah pointed to this loss of about £250m in funding and to the closure of a local British Aerospace site, a major local employer, as reasons for dissatisfaction.

Labour’s national campaign coordinator, Pat McFadden, admitted the war on Gaza had been raised by voters during local election campaigns. 

The senior Labour official told the BBC: “I do think that's been a factor in some places, I don't think there's any point in denying that. It does get raised, and I understand why people have strong feelings about that.”

McFadden was criticised at the beginning of April for appearing to condone British arms sales to Israel. 

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