“I was a member of the Labor Party for 31 years. The Palestinian crisis was the end for me. I can no longer tolerate Keir’s politics,” said Waheed Akbar, the former mayor of Luton.
Akbar said many people locally had said he had made the right decision to leave the Labor Party. “This party no longer works specifically for the Muslim community. They will not vote for Labour,” he said, accusing Keir Starmer of handling the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. “People have the impression that he blindly supports the Israeli government,” he said.
He is not the only one to share this opinion in this Bedfordshire town which has the fourth largest Muslim population in England. Its two MPs, Sarah Owen and Rachel Hopkins, both sit in the Labor shadow cabinet. Locally, they are facing calls to resign from these positions over Starmer’s handling of the issue.
An open letter sent to Owen, Hopkins and all local Labor councilors calling for a “public and unequivocal” distancing from statements made by Starmer in an LBC interview where he appeared to suggest that “Israel has the right” to deny electricity and water to Palestinians. civilians received more than 1,000 signatures. Starmer clarified those comments, saying his response was only intended as a response to an earlier question about Israel’s broader right to self-defense. He has not issued a retraction or apology for the original comments.
They are not the only Labor MPs under pressure either. The 20 parliamentary constituencies with the highest proportion of Muslim voters are held by Labour.
Several Labor MPs told the Guardian they had received more emails and other messages about it than on any other subject in the past. A shadow minister said they had received more correspondence about Gaza “than ever before” and that their constituents were deeply concerned about the war.
Another lawmaker said he had received about 750 emails from constituents calling for a ceasefire and aid to Gaza, as well as a much smaller number, about a dozen, urging them to support Israel. They said other deputies reported receiving more than 1,000 messages.
“This is by far the biggest mailbag we’ve had for a single issue. We received about five times more correspondence on this subject than the next one,” the MP said.
They said that although their constituency had a large Muslim population, support for a ceasefire came from all communities.
On Friday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and former Scottish Party leader Anas Sarwar, the Labor Party’s two most senior Muslim figures, broke ranks with the Labor leadership and called for a ceasefire. At least 29 Labor councilors have resigned from the party over its handling of the Gaza crisis. Nine were in Oxford, leading to Labor losing control of the council.
A senior figure in the community, who wished to remain anonymous, said the language used against Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, had resonated. He said: “The words of barbarians, of savages, of animals, we also hear it all the time in the headlines about Muslims. It resonates because we recognize it, we have heard it about ourselves.
Birmingham Hodge Hill is the parliamentary seat with the highest proportion of Muslim voters in the UK, with 62% of voters identifying as Muslim. Palestinian flags and banners expressing solidarity with Gaza civilians were a common sight in shops and homes across the constituency, but apathy and anger towards Labor was less pronounced in the area.
Sameer Tariq, 20, a trainee electrician, moved to the constituency about five months ago. He said he would “probably vote for Keir Starmer” at the next election. “If Jeremy Corbyn was still here, I would vote for him,” he added. “(Starmer) is not the worst. I really hate Rishi Sunak, it’s a common narrative here,” he said.
More than 300 councilors signed an open letter to Starmer supporting calls for a ceasefire. Hodge Hill councilor Majid Mahmood was one of them. He said: “This cannot continue – we must find a peaceful solution quickly. »
A Labor councilor in an area with a large number of Muslim voters said his peers “are afraid to speak out against Starmer”. They added: “I face a lot of backlash within my own group for speaking out and not toeing their line. »
Azhar Qayum, chief executive of the charity Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend), said Labor “can no longer take the Muslim vote for granted”.
He said he had spoken to a number of Muslim organizations and mosques who are “furious” about Labor’s response to the dispute, with many people saying they would no longer vote for the party as a result.
He added that he did not believe Muslim voters had defected to other parties, and said they could be won back by Labor if it was able to undo some of the damage.
For some long-time Labor supporters, Labor’s handling of the Gaza crisis is profound. Atilla Ustun, president of the Luton Turkish Community Association, is another long-serving Labor member unhappy with Starmer’s handling of the Gaza crisis. He said: “We are not Labor. This is not why my father has voted for this party for 60 years.”