Keir Starmer’s centrism on Gaza alienates some UK Labour supporters

Opposition is poised for success in next week’s British elections, but among ethnic minorities, Starmer is least popular Labour leader since at least 1996

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (L) and Leader of the Scottish Labour party Anas Sarwar (R) visit the Window Supply Company factory, in Whitburn, Bathgate, Scotland on June 21, 2024 as part the Labour general election campaign in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (L) and Leader of the Scottish Labour party Anas Sarwar (R) visit the Window Supply Company factory, in Whitburn, Bathgate, Scotland on June 21, 2024 as part the Labour general election campaign in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Sabia Akram has spent most of her life campaigning for Britain’s Labour Party, but she will not celebrate if it wins the July 4 election, having quit over leader Keir Starmer’s handling of issues around the Israel-Hamas war and issues around race.

The Labour Party holds a commanding lead in opinion polls after Starmer steered it back to the center following a trouncing in the 2019 election under his predecessor, veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn.

But Starmer has lost the support of some minority voters who traditionally vote Labour, over his support for Israel and for only gradually shifting the party’s position toward supporting a ceasefire in Gaza.

Israel has been at war with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip since October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists invaded southern Israel from Gaza, killing 1,200 people and taking 251 hostages.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,500 people in the Gaza Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though the toll cannot be verified and does not differentiate between civilians and fighters.

Israel says it has killed some 15,000 combatants in battle and some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel during the October 7 attack.

Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to the audience, during the Sky News election debate, in Grimsby, England, Wednesday June 12, 2024. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP)

Keir Starmer, who took over leadership of the party in 2020, sought to move the left-wing party back to the center, promoting candidates who would vote as a disciplined bloc if they win. That shift has alienated some ethnic minorities who backed Corbyn and his left-wing vision.

Last month Starmer, speaking after his party won a parliament seat in northern England and control of several councils across England, acknowledged that opinions on the war in Gaza had had an impact on Labour support in some areas.

Sofia Collignon, associate professor at Queen Mary University, said while the party revamp was working nationally, it had caused strains among members and voters and that Starmer’s challenge was to hold all the different strands together.

Critics like Akram say Starmer has sold Labour’s “soul in order to seek the keys to No. 10,” referring to the residence of British prime ministers.

“It’s no longer defined by its values and its core principles,” she said, adding that the party had become a home for whoever wanted to join, citing a right-wing lawmaker who defected from the ruling Conservatives.

A long-running Ipsos poll of ethnic minority voting intentions found that Starmer, in the second half of 2023, had the lowest net satisfaction rating of any Labour opposition leader since the series began in 1996.

Labour has long been the political home of many ethnic minority voters. According to British Future, a think tank, one in five of its election candidates are from an ethnic minority background. The last census in 2021 said 18% of the population in England and Wales were ethnic minorities.

Jeremy Corbyn and Faiza Shaheen address a gathering during a visit to Chingford in east London on September 28, 2019. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

With its 20-point lead in opinion polls, concerns among ethnic minorities may not affect the election result, Keiran Pedley at Ipsos said, but added: “If these trends are lasting – and we don’t know if they will [be] – then it’s possible it could become more politically significant.”

Akram, 43, resigned as a Labour councilor in Slough, west of London, in early June along with six others, citing what she saw as censorship on the issue of the war in Gaza.

She also cited the treatment of Faiza Shaheen, who was blocked from standing as a Labour candidate in a northeast London seat.

Shaheen said that she was fired for 14 posts to X, then Twitter, stretching back more than 10 years, many of which were related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The posts included a 2014 list of companies to boycott “to support Palestine,” a sketch by American comedian Jon Stewart about political backlash for speaking about Israel, and a 2019 photo with then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“The real reason for it all? I’m too interested in wealth inequality, public ownership and Palestine to be welcomed in today’s Labour party,” Shaheen wrote in a Guardian op-ed. She is running for Parliament as an independent.

The Labour Party did not respond to a Reuters request for comment about the allegations.

Labour Party MP Diane Abbott speaks at a demonstration organized by the Stand Up To Racism group outside Downing Street in London on July 17, 2021. (Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP)

Akram also criticized the treatment of Diane Abbott, Britain’s first Black woman lawmaker and a close Corbyn ally, who was suspended from Labour for over a year after she wrote a letter to the Observer newspaper rejecting the use of the term “racism” to apply to prejudice against “Irish, Jewish, and Traveller people.”

“It is true that many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice. But they are not all their lives subject to racism,” Abbott wrote.

Media reports initially said she would be blocked from running in the election, sparking anger from some voters, before the party said she was welcome to stand as its candidate again.

Ngozi Fulani, founder and CEO of domestic abuse charity Sistah Space which is based in Abbott’s neighborhood of Hackney, said many Black people had wanted her to run as an independent.

“Most Black people have always voted Labour, that’s my experience,” she told Reuters. “(But) the Labour Party have been in decline … we don’t feel an association,” she said, adding that Starmer’s Labour didn’t “take too much interest in matters that affect us specifically”.

Hackney, a northeast London neighborhood where 21% of the population is Black, is among the capital’s most deprived areas, with more than one in three households living below the poverty line after housing costs are accounted for.

Members of the shadow cabinet listen as Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks on stage at the launch of The Labour party’s 2024 general election manifesto in Manchester, England, June 13, 2024. The election will take place on July 4. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Of the 18 people Reuters interviewed there who have supported Abbott for nearly four decades, 14 said they thought she had been treated badly and that they would vote for her in the upcoming election following her reinstatement.

Starmer, the country’s former chief prosecutor, became Labour leader in April 2020, vowing reform after a report from the UK’s equalities watchdog said the party had discriminated against Jews.

The report, which was published in the wake of Labour’s historic losses in 2019, led to the ousting of Corbyn, whom Jewish organizations had long accused of fostering antisemitism within the party.

In addition to the harassment and discrimination claims investigated by the report, Jewish leadership in the UK took issue with many of Corbyn’s public actions, such as writing the foreword for a book that claimed Jews control banks and the press and referring to “friends” in the Hamas and Hezbollah terror groups.

Corbyn, who has been a vocal opponent of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, is running as an independent this year.

A report commissioned by Starmer in 2022 said that the party was beset by factionalism during Corbyn’s time, and accused both supporters and opponents of the then-leader of engaging with the antisemitism issue in bad faith.

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