UK's Labour Party's Gaza war stance leads to local election losses

UK's Labour Party's Gaza war stance leads to local election losses
Labour saw losses where former Labour councillors stood as independents following a series of resignations in wake of the Israel-Gaza war.
4 min read
04 May, 2024
Israel's war on Gaza has been a controversial issue for Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer [GETTY]

The Labour Party's stance on the Gaza war has cost it seats at local council elections in England and Wales this week, following anger among supporters over the party leader's soft response to Israel's brutal offensive.

The left-wing opposition party lost seats in traditional Labour strongholds after several councillors defected earlier this year, dissatisfied with Sir Keir Starmer's support for Israel's "right to self-defence" in its war on Gaza, which has seen at least 34,622 Palestinians killed over seven months.

Votes were held across England and Wales on Thursday to elect local councillors and mayors, with results trickling in throughout Friday and Saturday.

Although Labour picked up 173 councillors and gained eight councils, it also saw losses where former Labour councillors stood as independents following a series of resignations in wake of Israel's military assault on Gaza.

Labour lost its majority in Oldham Council, which it had held since 2011, as independent candidates supportive of Palestine won five seats, leaving the council without a clear majority.

The party's majority had already been weakened after two defections there in April, as party supporters have felt dismayed by the leadership's inability to condemn Israel's offensive, which has triggered a major humanitarian crisis in the tiny enclave.

Senior Labour politician and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper admitted that Gaza had become an issue for voters in the UK.

Speaking to Channel 4 news on Friday following the results, she said: "No doubt Gaza has been a factor in some council areas, and obviously in some council areas there have been other factors as well.

"In some areas we’ve had particular candidates campaign very strongly on that issue," she said.

 "This is an issue where tens of thousands of people have died, including the majority of them women and children. So, rightly, people feel very strongly about this," Cooper said, in reference to Gaza.

"I think it's clear we need an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, it is devastating what’s happening we’re deeply worried about the risks that Israel may pursue a Rafah offensive which would be catastrophic in humanitarian terms that’s why an immediate ceasefire is so important," she added.

One painful episode for Labour occurred in Pendle Council, where the party lost all its seats after four councillors stood as independents. A similar scenario unfolded in Blackburn.

Labour politician Clive Betts said on Friday that his party had lost votes over its stance on Gaza.

“A lot of that was mistaken, on the belief that we hadn’t changed our position on Gaza from a few months ago, but once people take a view that we have got it wrong, it is very difficult to change their minds," the Sheffield Southeast MP said.

Many Labour supporters have been angered by Starmer's defence of Israel's war and failure to call for an outright ceasefire from the beginning.

In a controversial interview with LBC radio in October, Starmer said that Israel had a right to cut off power and water supplies into Gaza.

 "I’m very clear, Israel must have that right to defend herself," Starmer said.

When the presenter challenged him on whether that included cutting off power or water, the former lawyer said that he thought Israel did have the right to do that "within international law".

His comments received widespread backlash and prompted a spell of defections among councillors, who are responsible for governing local authorities.

In November, nine councillors in Blackburn announced resignations from the Labour Party in response to the Labour leadership’s stance over the war.

While Starmer did row back on his remarks, it came ten days later, which was regarded as too late for many supporters.

Over the course of the war, there has been a flurry of support for independent or alternative candidates, who are emphasising the war as a key campaign issue to attract disillusioned Labour voters.

Maverick political veteran and former Labour MP George Galloway won a by-election in a traditional Labour seat in northern England earlier this year in a campaign based on calling for a Gaza ceasefire.

There has also been concern that the party has lost support of Muslim communities over the topic.

Political pollster John Curtice told the BBC that Labour support is down eight points since last year in areas where more than 10 percent of the population are Muslim.

The local elections are largely seen as a forecast of what could play out in a general election expected in autumn this year.

Although the right-wing Conservatives are expected to lose power and a potentially record amount of seats after 13 years in office, Labour insiders are said to be concerned that Starmer's approach to the war could curtail Labour's gains.