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How big is Labour’s Gaza problem?

The electoral cost of Keir Starmer’s LBC interview is mounting.

By Freddie Hayward

The criticism flung at Labour councillors who push the party to condemn the war in Gaza is that they should stick to bin collections, local parks and grass verges. Foreign policy, international law and the logistics of delivering humanitarian aid are not considered to sit within the purview of local councillors, or metro mayors. When the former first minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, pronounced on Britain’s policy on Gaza or requested Foreign Office briefings he was rebuffed. This, some Tories argued, is a power reserved for Westminster.

A version of this phenomenon has dogged Labour since the war erupted in October. Back then, the main opposition to Keir Starmer’s support for Israel came from councillors. Labour quickly lost Oxford City Council after eight councillors resigned to protest the leadership’s refusal to call for a ceasefire. Those who resigned were a combination of single-issue protesters and disgruntled Corbynites angry about the overall direction of the party. As one of them told me at the time: “Why would we stay members of the party if we can’t possibly align ourselves morally with what they stand for?”

Today, the problem facing Labour is more prosaic and more dangerous: votes. The electoral cost of Starmer’s LBC interview in the days after the 7 October attack – when he said Israel had a right to turn off Gaza’s water supply – is mounting. The local elections show that Labour is on course for a landslide, but the success of pro-Palestine independents and Greens meant the party underperformed relative to the polls.

As Ben writes in this excellent dissection of the results: “Instead of the 273 gains we projected, [Labour] could only amass 186 – nearly 100 off the forecast figure. Who filled in the gaps? The Greens and “the others”. The former outperformed our forecast by 22 seats, but independents and smaller parties (including George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain) outperformed it by 86… Scores of independent gains blunted Labour’s advance. And, yes, they happened disproportionately in wards in the north and middle of England with large Muslim populations.”

This helps explain why Labour’s new West Midlands mayor, Richard Parker, told Andrew’s LBC show yesterday that he would like to see an arms embargo placed on Israel. Shadow cabinet members I’ve spoken to this week are confident about the set of elections. Nevertheless, anger around the war in Gaza is not going away, at least until a ceasefire is reached, and even then there will be debate surrounding Gaza’s reconstruction.

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The reality is that councillors are going beyond their brief to push the leadership on Gaza because that’s what (some of) their voters want. Parker beat Street by 0.3 percentage points. Akhmed Yakoob, the pro-Palestinian independent, won 11.7 per cent of the vote. These stats would have been in Parker’s mind when he called for an embargo last night.

Sadiq Khan once told me that he feared Labour could eventually lose London in the same way it lost the Red Wall. His point was that voters slip away in places where the party feels strongest. Labour is on course for government, but it’s worth noting that there are signs this process is happening with pro-Palestinian voters. And many in the party know it.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Does Labour’s underperformance in the local elections matter?]

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