Beckett suffers mass defection of party members to Lib Dems

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Indy Politics

Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, has been hit by a mass defection of Labour Party members in her constituency that could threaten her chance of political survival beyond the next election. A total of 37 Labour Party members in Derby South, mostly from Pakistani backgrounds, announced that they were switching allegiance to the Liberal Democrats in protest at the Government's failure to push for a ceasefire in Lebanon.

Tony Blair is due to visit the Middle East next month, against a background of widespread unease in the Labour Party over the line that he and the Foreign Secretary pursued during the Lebanon crisis.

Earlier this month, more than 100 Labour MPs backed a call for the Commons to be recalled from its summer break to debate the crisis. Mr Blair said repeatedly that Hizbollah was to blame for starting the current round of violence by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, killing others, and shelling civilian areas. Critics say that by taking this line, he failed to put pressure on Israel to halt the bombing of Lebanon. At a press conference in Derby's Pakistani Community Centre yesterday, one of the defectors, Ravail Peeno, a former chairman of his local Labour Party branch, said: "The Lebanon war has made me change my mind and made me feel I am in the wrong party. The people who are getting killed out there are innocent women and children.

"It's sad. For many years I have been a Labour Party member but we have no choice. We can't take it any more."

His fellow defector, Shayad Mahmood, 31, a father of three, said: "We are not backing Hizbollah but we are against the killing of innocent women and children. They are dropping bombs in highly populated areas where civilians are. In this day and age, in 2006, there is no way this Government can allow this to carry on."

He added: "We need to stop aligning ourselves to America."

A former city and county councillor, Masud Akhtar, said the defections reflected concerns among Muslim communities nationwide about the Government's Middle East policy. He said: "For the Muslims, the Liberal Democrats have taken a very principled stand and have listened to what the electorate have told them. Their foreign policy strikes a chord with Muslim people not just in Derby but across the UK."

The defections could put Mrs Beckett in danger of losing her seat next time, if Derby's large non-white electorate desert Labour. Last year, she suffered a 12 per cent swing away from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, largely because of the Iraq war, which cut her majority to 5,657.

The Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell described the defections as "significant". "The Government's position on the Middle East and Iraq shows just how out of touch it is with many in its party and the majority of the general public," he said.

A Labour Party spokesman said: "We understand that there are ongoing local factors arising from a selection process last year which have led to this defection. It is always disappointing when any member decides to leave the Labour Party.

"It is important that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister continue to work hard to achieve a sustainable ceasefire in Lebanon - something we're sure all Labour Party members would unite around."

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