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Keir Starmer risks Labour unity but not votes with Israel-Gaza stance, despite anger of Muslim members

The row over Sir Keir Starmer’s comments about the Israel-Hamas conflict is unlikely to deter Labour voters at the next general election but risks reopening deep divisions within the party, experts have said.

Sir Keir is facing growing pressure over Labour’s stance towards the war in the Middle East, after he was forced to row back on remarks made last week suggesting Israel had the “right” to cut off water and energy to Gaza.

The Labour leader later clarified his position, saying he only meant that the country had a right to self-defence – but the move has failed to subdue a backlash from MPs and councillors within the party.

Sir Keir and his deputy, Angela Rayner, will meet MPs amid growing tensions over his stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict, which has sparked at least 25 Labour councillors to quit so far.

More than 150 Muslim Labour councillors have also written to the Opposition Leader urging the party leadership to call for an immediate ceasefire in the region.

Political experts told i that the saga had sparked a “potentially treacherous” internal drama but was unlikely to translate into more than a handful of seat losses under a worst-case scenario at the next general election, expected in autumn 2024.

“There are not a lot of seats where the Muslim vote is big enough to change the result. Many of those seats are very, very safe Labour seats, where even a substantial swing in the vote probably wouldn’t put the seat in jeopardy,” said Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester.

A recent report by Channel 4 News had suggested that Muslims make up a majority in more than 30 constituencies. However, data from the 2021 census shows that Muslim Labour voters were a majority in the resident population of just three constituencies – Hodge Hill and Hall Green, both in Birmingham, and Bradford West.

Professor Ford added that “foreign policy doesn’t decide elections – even in 2005”, when Tony Blair was re-elected as prime minister despite widespread anger over his decision to send British troops to invade Iraq in 2003.

The move dented Labour’s popularity – the party lost 48 seats while the Liberal Democrats picked up an extra 11 seats and the Conservatives gained 33 seats – but still saw Labour return to power with an overall majority.

“Iraq is sort of as bad as it’s likely to get for Labour, and they didn’t lose many seats. There was a great deal of anger in the Muslim community about Britain’s invasion. There were very big demonstrations about that very clear evidence that the Muslim opinion was strongly against it,” said Professor Ford.

“But that was a more intense foreign policy issue than this – it involved direct British military involvement in the occupation of a Muslim country. Whereas, what we’re talking about now is essentially verbal, symbolic and economic support for a country that’s in a conflict with a Muslim microstate.”

The current anger engulfing surrounding Labour centres on Sir Keir’s comments made in an LBC interview on 11 October.

When pressed on whether Israel’s siege of Gaza was appropriate, including cutting off supplies, he said: “I think that Israel does have that right, it is an ongoing situation. Obviously, everything should be done within international law, but I don’t want to step away from the core principles that Israel has a right to defend herself.”

Chris Hopkins, political research director at polling firm Savanta, told i that the saga was unlikely to “move things much”.

He said: “It risks creating an internal drama though, which is the last thing Labour needs. It’s escaped pretty drama-free for the last few years, and being divided over an issue that doesn’t matter to huge swathes of voters feels potentially treacherous.”

Sir Keir has made efforts to divorce Labour of its old guard under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, after the party was accused of antisemitism.

Speaking at the Labour Party conference earlier this month, the Opposition Leader said Labour was now a “new party” that had “ripped antisemitism out by its roots”.

However, some have suggested he has done so at the expense of the party’s Muslim membership.

Writing in The Guardian on Tuesday, Shaista Aziz, who resigned as a Labour councillor on Oxford City Council last week, said: “While it remains to be seen if the much discussed ‘Muslim vote’ holds for Labour, what is very clear from the events of the past two weeks is that we are seen as politically disposable.”

Sunder Katwala, the director of think tank British Future, said the row would be likely to push Sir Keir to “balance his message” on the Israel-Hamas conflict in the run-up to the next general election.

“There’s a substantive issue beneath all this, which is should the Labour Party be calling for a ceasefire or be calling for a much more constrained restraint on the Israel operation, even though it agrees that there’s a right to defend it?” he told i.

“There isn’t a dispute among anybody mainstream about the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, but whether the military response now has a risk of deepening the conflict, making it more intractable for generation as well as costing civilian lives.

“Does the Labour Party therefore signal it’s in favour of a ceasefire, or does it signal that it wants the military response pursued with restraint? I think Keir Starmer could do a lot to balance his message.”

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