UK Labour polling Muslim voters as Gaza 'damage control' begins

UK Labour polling Muslim voters as Gaza 'damage control' begins
Polling of Muslim voters comes as MPs and party officials worry about the negative affect the current Gaza stance will have on the party's electoral chances.
3 min read
31 January, 2024
Keir Starmer has received backlash for a number of statements on Gaza, including his refusal to back a permanent ceasefire [Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

The UK Labour Party is polling Muslim voters as part of "damage control" efforts amid rising discontent over the party's stance on Israel's war on Gaza.

Senior party figures are reportedly concerned that damage to Labour voting shares of Muslims, nearly half of whom voted for the party in 2019, could make a difference in over a dozen seats, particularly if polls narrow.

Labour has refused to back calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and has emphasised Israel's "right to self defence", despite a mounting death toll that currently stands at almost 27,000.

One Labour frontbencher told The Guardian: "We know we've lost the Muslim vote and at the very least their trust. The Muslim community is no longer a safe voter base for us because of how we initially responded to the war. So we're just focused on damage control. We all know it".

The backlash has prompted the emergence of grassroots campaigns to dissuade people from voting for Labour in the upcoming 2024 general election. One group, The Muslim Vote, is mobilising support from British Muslims for candidates whose stance on Palestine better reflects the predominant views of the community on the issue.

New parties have also emerged to challenge Labour seats, including Never Forget Gaza, which seeks to unseat shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood in Birmingham. In London, British-Palestinian activist Leanne Mohammad is aiming to unseat Labour frontbencher Wes Streeting.

Prior to the recent outbreak of war in Gaza in October, Muslims in the party had already raised concerns that complaints about Islamophobia were not being addressed.

The discontent appears to have come to a head in recent months, with party leader Keir Starmer appearing to endorse Israel's brutal military campaign.

In an interview on LBC in October, Starmer said Israel had the right to withhold food and electricity to the enclave, as part of its total siege that followed the 7 October attack on Israel by Hamas.

Following a backlash over what appeared to be an endorsement of Israel's use of collective punishment against Palestinians, Starmer claimed he had been misunderstood.

"I know that LBC clip has been widely shared and caused real concern and distress in some Muslim communities, so let me be clear about what I was saying and what I wasn’t saying," he said.

"I was saying that Israel has the right to self-defence, and when I said that right I meant it was that right to self-defence. I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines."

However, he has continued to receive criticism from the party for not supporting a permanent ceasefire, causing a major rebellion within the party over a ceasefire vote.

This has been further exacerbated by Starmer's comments that Labour would only recognise a Palestinian state in the context of negotiations over a two-state solution, rather than unilaterally.

Earlier this week, Labour appeared to be outflanked by the Conservatives on the issue, with Foreign Secretary David Cameron announcing that the government would be looking into recognising Palestine.

According to The Guardian, Labour MPs have coalesced into several groups to challenge the party leadership on the Palestine issue, including in Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME) and a separate WhatsApp group with 30 MPs.

Members of the WhatsApp group now frequently meet with Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy and with Sue Gray, Starmer's Chief of Staff.

Labour MPs in the LFPME have also lobbied David Lammy over the party's recent policy change regarding recognition of Palestine.

The Guardian also noted how Labour MPs warned that other voter bases are likely to be influenced by the party stance, with a party source warning that "the discontent is much wider than the leadership realises. If we don't get on top of this soon we are going to have trouble later this year."