Local elections: Labour campaign chief admits Gaza war ‘a factor’ that cost party seats

Labour’s election chef admits that anger over Starmer’s position on Middle East conflict has already cost the party seats

Andy Gregory,David Maddox
Friday 03 May 2024 15:22
Keir Starmer hails ‘incredible’ Blackpool election win

Despite being on course to inflict losses of 500 seats on the Conservatives, Labour’s stance over Israel’s war in Gaza appears to be costing Sir Keir Starmer’s party in the local elections, according to his election chief.

Pat McFadden, a senior member of Starmer’s shadow cabinet, admitted on Sky News that the question over the events happening in Gaza, and Sir Keir’s support for Israel, were having an impact on votes.

Sources from the Labour’s West Midlands team have also claimed that some Muslim voters stayed at home over the issue in protest probably helping to hand victory to the defending Tory mayor Andy Street in a key contest.

Mr McFadden, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator, acknowledged Gaza had been “a factor in some places”, saying that with “so many innocent people being killed I’m not surprised people have strong feelings about that”.

But he added that “very local factors” had also played a role in Oldham, while council leader Arooj Shah blamed “13 years of austerity” and “divisive toxic politics” in the town which pre-dated the latest outbreak of conflict in Gaza, sparked by Hamas’s killing of more than 1,100 Israelis.

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators walk through Kensington to the Israeli embassy in London (PA)

Asked whether the loss was linked to Sir Keir Starmer’s position on the conflict, Ms Shah told the BBC: “I don’t think that’s a fair statement to make, given that the issue of Gaza has been over the last year but what we’ve seen in Oldham is a lot longer than that... what we have had is 13 years of austerity and that’s been really, really difficult.”

While Labour had already won 20 of a possible 38 councils – and gained four – by midday on Friday, with 69 yet to declare, there were signs that Sir Keir’s position on Palestine had hampered his party’s ascendancy in some areas.

Most notably, Labour lost its majority of 13 years in Oldham, which had already been whittled down to just one ahead of Thursday’s elections as a result of two defections last month – both of whom accused the party of not doing enough to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza.

And on Friday morning, it became clear Labour’s slim remaining majority in the Greater Manchester town had crumbled – as the council was pushed into no overall control.

Sir Keir Starmer has been criticised for his position on the Gaza conflict (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

But there were signs that Labour’s position on Gaza – which has seen multiple defections since October, including the loss of 11 councillors in Burnley in November – was also having an effect elsewhere, as Green Party and independent candidates swept up Labour votes.

Newcastle elected its first-ever Green councillors, who seized two seats in the Labour-held council while, in Bolton, Labour lost two seats to fall five short of forming a majority – with Greens also winning their first seat and independents making gains.

Labour’s council leader for Bolton, Nick Peel, said: “As a direct result of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Palestine many South Asian voters have not supported Labour or the Conservatives.”

Despite him having called for a ceasefire in Gaza, the public had expressed “real anger” over Labour’s stance, Mr Peel said.

George Galloway is also hoping to snatch more seats from Labour with his Workers Party (Getty Images)

One Labour source in Birmingham suggested the issue had cost them a victory in the key West Midlands mayoral election, where a defeat for incumbent Andy Street could potentially imperil Rishi Sunak’s premiership.

An anonymous source was quoted by Times columnist Patrick Maguire as saying: “We have beaten him [Andy Street] as a general rule, but the Muslim vote has collapsed to the Galloway-backed independent.”

And in a quote dubbed “vile” by the Tories, the BBC quoted a senior Labour source as saying: “It’s the Middle East, not West Midlands, that will have won Andy Street the mayoralty. Once again Hamas are the real villains.”

A spokesperson later told ITV: “The Labour Party has strongly condemned this racist quote which has not come from anyone who is speaking on behalf of party or whose values are welcome in the party.”

Chris Hopkins, political research director at pollster Savanta, said Labour has had “a strong set of local elections so far” – but warned it could lose further seats over Gaza with councils such as Burnley and Bradford still to declare.

Many Labour supporters are angry over the party’s stance on the war as the devastation in Gaza continues (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

He cautioned though that the swing away from Labour in those areas “doesn’t look large enough at this stage to affect them at a general election”.

Noting that the “Greens may be heading for their best performance yet in English local elections”, polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice looked ahead to the upcoming general election as he told the BBC that Friday’s results showed “there is potentially a battle between Labour and the Greens” for progressive or left-wing voters.

“Particularly this is an among younger people, particularly in university towns, perhaps also among some of the Muslim communities,” said Professor Curtice, noting that there were wards with large Muslim populations “where Labour have actually done quite badly”.

Former Labour MP George Galloway has also sought to capitalise on the Gaza issue, winning the Rochdale by-election in February and saying he will challenge Labour with a series of pro-Palestinian candidates at the general election.

Asked whether he was concerned about the impact of his Gaza position, Sir Keir told the BBC: “I’m concerned wherever we lose votes and we intend to win any votes we have lost back.

“But there’s no denying that across the country, whether it’s Hartlepool in the North or Rushmoor in the South or Redditch, a bellwether seat, we are winning votes across the country. And that, I think, reflects a changed Labour Party with a positive case to take to the country.

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