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Palestine becomes potential dealbreaker in Batley and Spen by-election

Senior Labour Party members are concerned that the upcoming by-election in Batley and Spen may find them lose a seat that the Party has held since 1997. For many in the local Muslim population, Labour’s low-key comments on the latest Israeli aggression which left 61 Palestinian children killed was the final straw.

Batley, located in the Kirklees district of West Yorkshire, is part of the so-called ‘Red Wall’. As of 2016, the South Asian population is estimated at being approximately 33 percent in Batley West and 54 percent in Batley East. The ‘Red Wall’ refers to the northern regions of England which were once considered a stronghold for Labour. These regions recently switched their allegiance during the 2019 general election, as a protest vote against Labour’s poorly communicated position on Brexit.

Traditionally, Labour has been able to rely on votes from the British Muslim community. This was especially so during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, whom many considered a longstanding and sincere friend of the Palestinian cause. However, under the stewardship of Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s relationship with the Muslim community has largely become strained.

These tensions are now being manifested in the by-election of Batley and Spen. Within this constituency, a voter called ‘Zayd’ described themselves as being a lifelong Labour supporter. But he now states:

“Ever since I’ve been eligible to vote, I’ve voted Labour, but Keith[1] [sic] Starmer has let us down.

“He’s let the whole community down in terms of his international foreign policies.”

Many within the Muslim community were astonished by the muted response of the Labour leader as Israel killed 66 children in targeted strikes. Starmer’s equivocation between the sophisticated Israeli airstrikes and the rockets fired by Hamas only aggravated the matter. There were many international voices who stated that there could be no equivalence between the two sides. This is because Israel has the fourth largest military force in the world, and is fully armed with battleships, tanks, and F-16 fighter jets. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are an unarmed, besieged, and internationally silenced people who are resisting with whatever they can.

Starmer’s limp response in the context of alleged Israeli war crimes is even more concerning. His statements pale in comparison to Emily Thornberry’s explicit words of condemnation against Israel in 2018 while she presided as shadow Foreign Secretary. When Israel killed scores of unarmed Palestinian protestors on the border fence of Gaza and Israel, Thornberry issued the following statement:

“We condemn unreservedly the Israeli government for their brutal, lethal and utterly unjustified actions on the Gaza border, and our thoughts are with all those Palestinians in Gaza whose loved ones have been killed or injured as a result.

 “These actions are made all the worse because they come not as the result of a disproportionate over-reaction to one day’s protests, but as the culmination of six weeks of an apparently systemic and deliberate policy of killing and maiming unarmed protestors and bystanders who pose no threat to the forces at the Gaza border, many of them shot in the back, many of them shot hundreds of metres from the border, and many of them children.”[2]

What is especially concerning for Labour is that it is not just isolated Muslim votes that are at risk. A number of Muslim organisations are also turning their backs on Starmer. One such organisation is the Indian Muslim Welfare Society (IMWS), which accounts for 3,000 Muslim households in Batley. Founded in 1957, it is the largest Muslim organisation in the area. For the cover of its latest edition, the organisation featured the famous image of a Palestinian child throwing a rock at an Israeli tank, with the following headline: “Palestinians also have the right to defend themselves”.[3]

The General Manager of IMWS, Nadeem Raja said:

“If you do the rough calculations: 50% turnout is a big turnout in by-elections and the way Muslim voters feel this time…this time they want to send out a message to the national party and the local party that Muslim votes matter.”

Muslim disillusionment has been growing under Starmer’s tenure, which has been marred with a number of unpleasant incidents. These include the case of the former director of public prosecution describing India’s illegal human rights abuses in Kashmir as a “matter for the Indian parliament” to decide. Recently, Starmer withdrew from an iftar dinner after allegedly yielding to pressure from the Jewish Chronicle.

Last week, a number of Muslim and pro-Palestinian organisations wrote to the Labour leader, warning that Muslim votes had been “taken for granted”. This comes against the backdrop of polling data released by Survation and the Labour Muslim Network, which clearly indicate that support for the party is falling among British Muslims.

The Labour candidate for Batley and Spen is Kim Leadbeater, sister of the late MP for the seat, Jo Cox. Before being tragically murdered by a far-right terrorist in 2016, Cox was an immensely popular MP who passionately spoke of the Palestinian plight. She also supported Syrians suffering under the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship.

The other candidate attempting to garner Muslim support is George Galloway, who seeks to take advantage of the Muslim disillusionment with Labour. In both 2005 and 2012, Galloway successfully won seats (Bethnal Green and Bow and Bradford West respectively), with the aid of Muslim voters, from the sitting Labour MP.[4]

The former Big Brother star, who notoriously pretended to be a cat as he drank imaginary milk and groomed himself,[5] may not want to remind the Muslim electorate in Batley and Spen of his darker side. Galloway is confirmed to have had close links and sympathies with Saddam Hussain and Bashar al-Assad,[6] both notorious Arab dictators who have been accused of war crimes.[7]

A loss in Batley and Spen is likely to be the final blow for Keir Starmer’s leadership. Whilst Starmer is clearly a proficient individual, he has failed to give Labour an identity which could inspire it to move forward. Regardless of Jeremy Corbyn’s failings in discipline and administration, at least the former leader had restored Labour’s status as a party of principle and made its supporters proud to wear the badge.

There does not appear to be any natural heir to Starmer, though names such as Rebecca Long Bailey, Dawn Butler, and Andy Burnham have all been cited. If Starmer does eventually step down, the next Labour leader should strive to make a party that places principles over power. Only then will it inspire its electorate, which includes many Muslims, to place a cross next to its candidate.



[1] This is a long running joke in anti-Keir Starmer quarters.







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