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Starmer's Labour has found a culprit for losing the Red Wall: Muslim voters

Instead of honestly examining the problems within the Labour Party, Starmer's team is again playing the antisemitism card
Labour leader Keir Starmer leaves a polling station in London on 6 May 2021 (AFP)

It was among the most poisonous political briefings in recent times. With Labour facing defeat in next Thursday’s Batley and Spen by-election, a “senior official” from the party turned on Muslim voters, accusing them of antisemitism.

The briefing was deadly: “We’re haemorrhaging votes among Muslim voters, and the reason for that is what [party leader Keir Starmer] has been doing on antisemitism. Nobody really wants to talk about it, but that’s the main factor. He challenged [former leader Jeremy] Corbyn on it, and there’s been a backlash among certain sections of the community.”

When in trouble, pick on a minority. It’s a well-known political strategy. 

In short, don't blame Starmer; smear Muslims instead. Disgusting politics of course, but someone close to Starmer has apparently calculated that it will work

Starmer’s supporters know that the Labour leader will be plunged into crisis if he loses Batley. They know that Starmer’s poll ratings are lower than Corbyn’s, and that he’s struggling to make headway in the Commons. They also know that he crashed to a humiliating by-election defeat at the hands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Tories in the Labour heartland seat of Hartlepool in May.  

Then, a week ago, Labour lost its deposit in another by-election in Chesham and Amersham, scoring just 622 votes, in what was reported as its worst-ever by-election result. 

If Starmer suffers another humiliation in Batley, the knives will come out. Talk of a leadership crisis will intensify. So the Labour official’s briefing to the Mail On Sunday looks like a calculated, preemptive strike to save Starmer’s skin. It sends out the message that the Labour leader isn’t facing calamity in Batley because of incompetence, failure of leadership or lack of vision. 

In short, don’t blame Starmer; smear Muslims instead. Disgusting politics of course, but someone close to Starmer has apparently calculated that it will work.

Ugly strategy

At first sight, the Mail On Sunday is an unlikely receptacle for the Labour briefing. It’s a Tory paper, not famous for left-wing connections. But political columnist Dan Hodges, who reported these remarks, does possess important Labour contacts.

His mother, the celebrated actor Glenda Jackson, was for a time a Labour MP, while Hodges himself worked as a Labour researcher before establishing a reputation as a writer and commentator. Politically, he defines himself as a “tribal neo-Blairite”.

Starmer is surrounded by what might be called tribal neo-Blairite strategists, and one has poured his heart out to Hodges. The strategy is ugly, but not stupid. It plays on the fact that there is antisemitism among some British Muslims. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks as Starmer listens at the House of Commons in London on 28 April 2021 (AFP/PRU)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks as Starmer listens at the House of Commons in London on 28 April 2021 (AFP/PRU)

But it is wrong, and cowardly, to stigmatise all Muslims based on the repulsive views of a tiny minority. And it is important to bear in mind the presence of antisemitism not just in Muslim communities, but in many parts of British society - not least, as has been well-documented, in Johnson’s Conservative Party. 

The Labour strategist who briefed the Mail On Sunday was not just guilty of shoddy politics. More importantly, there was no evidence that he or she understood that there are legitimate reasons why British Muslims would feel snubbed by Starmer’s Labour. 

Belated and bland response

Let’s consider Kashmir, from where many British Muslim families came after the 1947 partition. Many still have family there and travel back regularly, so they are acutely conscious of the terrible, well-documented abuses committed by Indian occupation forces: massacres, disappearances, torture, political suppression and attacks on free speech. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s revocation of Kashmiri autonomy two years ago further heightened tensions. Yet, one of Starmer’s first acts after winning the Labour leadership was to change policy on Kashmir.

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Corbyn had insisted that the UN’s resolutions on Kashmir, including a referendum on self-determination, should be implemented. In a statement after meeting with Labour Friends of India, however, Starmer asserted that Kashmir was a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. 

Starmer also disappointed many Muslims over what they saw as a belated and bland response to Israeli plans to expel Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, aggression at al-Aqsa Mosque, and killings in Gaza.

Starmer showed little leadership. His call earlier this month for a Palestinian state, made during Prime Minister’s Question Time, felt opportunistic, and occurred only after he realised that the Labour vote was crumbling in Batley. 

Islamophobia problem

Another problem for British Muslims is Starmer’s failure to address Islamophobia within the Labour Party itself. The Labour Muslim Network last year published a devastating report showing that 29 percent of Muslim Labour members and supporters have experienced Islamophobia in the party, while more than a third have witnessed it.

It found that nearly half of Muslim members and supporters lack confidence in Labour’s complaints procedure, while 59 percent do not feel “well represented by the leadership of the Labour Party”. It also noted that Muslims feel estranged from Labour over its position on the Prevent programme. For a party that prides itself on being anti-racist and inclusive, these are worrying findings.

Starmer needs to wake up to the fact that his policies are alienating Muslim voters

In Starmer’s defence, his record on Kashmir, Palestine and Islamophobia is much better than that of Johnson. Indeed, Labour’s problem with Islamophobia, while serious, cannot be seriously compared with Johnson’s Tories. As a YouGov poll discovered, more than half of Tory members believe noxious Islamophobic conspiracy theories about British Muslim “no go” areas. Such views help to explain why approximately 85 percent of Muslims voted Labour in 2017. 

It takes some doing for a Labour leader to drive Muslim voters away. Starmer needs to wake up to the fact that his policies are alienating Muslim voters. The answer is not to denounce them as antisemitic, as the aforementioned Labour official recently did. The answer is to probe the honourable and legitimate reasons why longstanding Labour voters are leaving his party. 

Starmer needs to wake up.

- Additional Research by Mahdi Mustafa

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book, The Assault on Truth, was published in February 2021. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.