Rob Ford explores the domestic electoral and political issues raised by the Israel-Gaza war for Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.
This week has seen the first pause in nearly two months of brutal fighting in Gaza. This conflict has also provoked the most serious foreign policy crisis for the Labour Party during Keir Starmer’s leadership, both reopening old factional divisions and generating new fractures, as arguments have raged over the appropriate response.
The Labour leadership has sought to navigate a difficult path, trying to reassure Jewish communities still wary of the party following the bruising antisemitism crisis under Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn that they understand Israel’s security concerns, while also being responsive to the concerns of Muslim voters angered by Israel’s brutal military response in Gaza.
Many councillors and MPs do not think the leadership has got the balance right, with dozens of councillors resigning from the party over the issue, while 56 Labour MPs defied the party leadership to back an amendment to the King’s Speech tabled by the SNP calling for an immediate ceasefire, including ten frontbenchers who resigned their posts to support the motion.
One contention made by Starmer’s critics is that the Labour leadership has failed to understand the depth of feeling among Muslim voters on this issue, and that a failure to make full throated demands for a ceasefire risked looking indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians in the conflict. This concern has been expressed with particular force by Muslim Labour MPs, and non-Muslim Labour MPs representing seats with large Muslim populations. Analysis by Owen Winter of Stack Data has shown that both Muslim MPs and those representing seats with a big Muslim community were significantly more likely to vote for the SNP ceasefire amendment.
This behaviour suggests widespread and deeply felt concern in the Muslim community over Labour’s Israel-Palestine position, something reinforced by the recent large marches in support of the Palestinian cause. Some critics have warned that the leadership’s stances risk alienating Muslim voters and putting Labour seats at risk.
This concern looks so far to be overstated, for several reasons. Firstly, the only rigorous opinion poll of Muslim voters conducted since the conflict started, fielded by Savanta in late October and early November, found overwhelming support for Labour among Muslim voters, with 64% of respondents backing the party.
Other questions in the poll provided some causes for concern, however. Muslim respondents were not impressed with Starmer’s performance on the Gaza crisis – nearly half were dissatisfied with the Labour leader’s response, while only one in five were satisfied. More than 40% of Muslims said Starmer’s handling of the crisis made them less likely to vote Labour, while 20% said it increased the chances they would vote Labour.
Yet while many Muslim voters are unhappy with Starmer and Labour on Gaza, they are even more discontented with Rishi Sunak and the Conservative government: nearly two thirds rated the government’s handling negatively, and nearly seven in ten were dissatisfied with Rishi Sunak.
The Middle East situation is also just one of several issues on Muslim voters’ minds as they weigh up their choices. Savanta found that one in three Muslim voters rated the Israel-Palestine conflict as a top three issue for them in deciding their vote. While we lack comparable data, this suggests the conflict is more salient for Muslims – YouGov polling suggests just one in ten voters in the public at large rated foreign policy as a top issue in November.
But while Muslim voters give more attention to Israel-Palestine, it is not their exclusive focus. Indeed, the big three issues dominating the issue agenda for voters in general were also the highest ranked issues for Muslims in this poll – inflation and the cost of living (45%); the NHS (39%) and the economy (36%) were most likely to be rated by Muslims as a top three issue, with Israel-Palestine (33%) in fourth place.
For Muslim voters, as for voters in general, the choice at the coming election is primarily about the economy and public services. There is no reason to think Muslim voters are any more positive about the Conservative government’s record here than anyone else, so these domestic concerns are likely to help keep Muslims in the Labour camp despite reservations on foreign policy.
The one poll we have is of course a snapshot of opinion on a fast-evolving conflict. It is quite possible that an escalation in fighting could produce a similar rise in concerns and discontent with Labour. Yet even if discontent became strong enough to trigger substantial Muslim defection from Labour, the broader electoral impact will be muted by two other factors.
Firstly, Muslim voters tend to cluster strongly in seats with very large Labour majorities. In 2019, Labour won all of the 25 seats with the largest Muslim population shares by margins of 20 points or more in an election where the party went down to a heavy defeat. Even a substantial Muslim swing against Labour would be unlikely to imperil the party in such seats and would be offset by the general swing towards Labour among other groups.
Secondly, the most probable challenge to Labour among Muslim voters will come from smaller parties to Labour’s left rather than the Conservatives. While we know such challenges can succeed – radical left firebrand George Galloway, for example, has twice defeated incumbent Labour MPs in seats with large Muslim electorates – such left-wing splinter MPs would be very unlikely to favour a Conservative government over a Labour one. They would be a thorn in the side of a Labour government, but not an obstacle to the formation of such a government.
While Labour do not face an immediate electoral challenge over Gaza, the passionate arguments stirred by the conflict at elite level, and the latent concerns evident in the polling do underline a longer-term challenge for Starmer. The conflict has reopened conflicts between Starmer and his party’s left wing, for whom Palestine is a cause célèbre – many of the rebel votes for the ceasefire amendment came from members of the Socialist Campaign Group, the most prominent left-wing faction in Labour.
The willingness of both leftwing firebrands and more moderate MPs who are Muslim or represent Muslim seats to rebel over the issue could be a sign of difficult party management struggles ahead for Starmer. The current conflict has done little harm to Labour’s general election prospects, but it has exposed deep internal Labour divides over foreign policy, divides which will pose even bigger problems for Keir Starmer if Labour return to government.
By Professor Rob Ford, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.