UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (Darren Staples/AFP)

Co-published with the Byline Times:

The Conservative Party’s Threat to British Muslims

The results were mixed for Labour in the UK’s local elections on Thursday.

Yes, the opposition party gained more than 180 council seats and eight councils. It triumphed in almost all mayoral elections, including an iconic but narrow victory in the West Midlands. It captured the Parliamentary seat of Blackpool South in a by-election with a 26.3% swing, the third-largest since 1945.

But there were also setbacks. Labour lost control of Oldham council. The Deputy Leader of the council lost his safe Labour seat to an independent, and former Labour voters helped the Greens break through in Bristol. The outcome in the West Midlands was in doubt — ultimately, the margin was only 1,508 votes — because of the 11.7% share for independent candidate Akhmed Yakoob.

Before the final drama in Birmingham, a Labour official complained, “It’s the Middle East, not West Midlands, that will have won [Conservative incumbent] Andy Street the mayoralty. Once again Hamas are the real villains.”

The eventual outcome, added to other triumphs such as Mayor Sadiq Khan’s in London, removed the “Gaza factor” from the headlines. But it is still present: for beyond these elections and beyond the national vote later this year, Labour’s leadership has a problem: an issue of how they engage with the UK’s Muslims.

A Loss of Respect and Trust

On Saturday, Labour leader Keir Starmer addressed those who have voted for the party in past, but felt they could not do so this time: “I’ve heard you and I’ve listened. I hope to gain your respect and trust again in the future.”

Left unspoken was the fact that Labour’s triumph was almost entirely because of a collapse in Tory support — the 34% share for Starmer’s party was almost exactly the same as in 2022, 2023, and 2024.

Analyzing the vote in 930 wards, Professor Will Jennings of the University of Southampton summarized, “Labour is in an uncomfortable position on Gaza. And it is not just Muslim voters.”

In the 20 constituencies in the UK with a Muslim electorate over 30% who elected a Labour MP in 2019, the opposition party’s share dropped 18%.

In a General Election, independents might not take seats from Labour. However, they could dent the party where there is more than one contender for first past the post. And in the longer run, the effect could be greater if there is the Liberal Democrats or Greens build their appeal or if there is a rejuvenated One Nation form of Conservatism.

Starmer’s LBC interview on October 11, in which he said “Israel has the right” to withhold power and water from Palestinian civilians, laid the foundations for this electoral desertion. The justification of collective punishment carried even greater weight because Starmer — a former Director of Public Prosecutions — knows the codes of international law.

Within 24 hours, Labour denied that Starmer intended to support an Israeli cutting of supplies, saying that he was just backing Israel’s right to defend itself. But the damage was done: almost seven months later, Independents and Greens played the interview as part of their election tactics on social media.

What Is To Be Done?

Some Labour stalwarts recognized this could be a problem. Pat McFadden, the party’s national election coordinator, said it will “work to get people’s support back”. But what does that entail?

First and maybe foremost, Labour politicians and officials need to stop pinning blame on Muslims for voting the “wrong” way. The community exercised their democratic right: whether the issue is Gaza or another concern, the party needs to uphold democracy — and everyone in a democracy — and the right to choose any candidate without retribution.

The British Muslim community is under duress. Labour needs to appreciate this, carrying out a sincere outreach. At the same time, the party should not fall into the belief that British Muslims only care about foreign issues.

The “Hamas are the real villains” comment by the Labour staffer in the West Midlands was eventually condemned. Much more is needed, however, to ensure that Labour acts to stamp out Islamophobia as it did with anti-semitism and homophobia. The British Muslim community needs to be respected as an integral part of the democratic process and not as some fifth column who should “do as I do”.

If the Labour Party is sincere about engagement, then it must move away from its traditional structures. Labour has relied on community leaders and mosque networks, as well as using Biradri (clan) systems to secure votes from Pakistani constitutents.

The local elections demonstrated that these methods are no longer effective. Most Labour candidates posted with an older British Muslim electorate, largely ignoring the demographic of young, professional, and university or college-educated voters using social media. Publicity and endorsements from Muslim men aged 45 to 65 sounded in an echo chamber where Islamic civil society had little presence.

Labour cannot just engage with members of the British Muslim community who tell the party what it wants to hear. Starmer and his team need to look beyond traditional gatekeepers and iftar meals with individuals who are detached from the realities of issues from Oldham to Bradford to Blackburn to Walsall. They need to draw lessons from campaigns such as Yaqoob in the West Midlands and Tiger Patel in Blackburn, who engaged directly with a new generation of British Muslim voters.

British Muslims who resigned as members of the party did so on principle. Many were not from the hard left but were centrists who felt their voices were ignored on every level when we just wanted a robust opposition to the mass killing in Gaza. Accepting, engaging, and reasserting a social contract with British Muslim voters cannot be hollow promises or a rejection of their concerns: it must be an active process of dialogue.

After his victory in the West Midlands, Richard Parker acknowledged that Gaza is “a very important point and it matters to this region”.

I’ve been out speaking and listening to many of our inner city communities, including the Muslim community.

I understand their concerns, I understand how important this issue is to them. I’m hoping if…demonstrate to them we do care and we understand their concerns, we can rebuild that trust and we can win them back to Labour.

On his first day in office on Monday, Parker tweeted:

But is Parker a marker of a new Labour, both with respect to Gaza and to its approach to the UK’s Muslims? Or is he just an exception to a disturbing rule?

In the 1979 General Election, the party was run out of power with the Tory billboard, “Labour Isn’t Working”. Even if it returns to power in 2024, it can only succeed if it avoids the future viral slogan on social media, “Labour Isn’t Listening”.