The Guardian recently reported that there is growing concern in Labour that its stance on Gaza is damaging support for the party. Sophie Stowers suggests that while the issue is having an impact on the party, it is unlikely to affect Labour’s electoral chances overall.
Will Labour suffer electorally as a result of their stance on the war in Gaza? More specifically, does the party stand to lose the support of Muslim voters? Concern is clearly brewing in Labour HQ, with reports that the Party has commissioned polling among said voters and is worried about opinion in marginal seats with sizeable Muslim populations.
At the last census, 6.5% of the UK population identified as Muslim, the second most popular religious identification in the country. There is a lack of comprehensive data on the political and social views of this group – as indeed there is with ethnic minority communities in general.
UK in a Changing Europe and Focal Data are working together in an attempt to fill this gap. Our preliminary work shows that, for the UK’s Muslim population, ethnicity, religion, age and geography interact to produce a distinctive set of political views and values. Though there are many variances in this group (for example, between British Muslims of North African origin and those of Middle Eastern origin), these political views generally translate into sizeable support for the Labour Party. Indeed, our data shows that Muslim voters are more likely to vote Labour than any other religious group in the country.
This support was pretty consistent between 2021 and mid-2023. But concern has been voiced by certain MPs, as well as Labour members and potential voters, about the possible implications of the Party’s response to the outbreak of the Gaza conflict. Comments by Keir Starmer around the proportionality of Israel’s response, and the leadership’s initial resistance to calling for a ceasefire, led to the resignation of multiple Labour councillors and ten frontbenchers in late 2023. 56 Labour MPs voted for an SNP amendment backing an immediate ceasefire – with those representing seats with a large Muslim population particularly likely to do so.
A recent snapshot poll reveals that Muslim voters overall disapprove of Labour’s stance on the conflict, with just one in five satisfied. 41% say they feel more negatively about the Party since the outbreak of the conflict.
Certainly, Muslim voters feel even more negatively about the government’s position. However, there are fears that, in the run-up to the election, Labour could lose support among British Muslims to smaller challenging parties. There is precedent. Respect reduced the Labour vote in Bethnal Green by just over 4,000 votes in 2005 to secure the party’s first – and only – MP. In the same election, the Liberal Democrats targeted Muslim Labour-voters dissatisfied with the Iraq War. In 2022, Aspire won overall control of Tower Hamlets council.
This time around, there seems little prospect of any challenger party on the horizon. But it is already the case that ethnic minority voters are disproportionately less likely to either register to vote or actually vote in comparison to white voters. There is thus the danger for Labour that Muslim voters dissatisfied with the Party’s stance may simply stay home.
With the brutal fighting going on in Gaza the electoral impact of the war seems inconsequential in comparison. But the truth is that the loss of support of Muslim voters is unlikely to impact Labour’s chances overall.
Polling shows that, although the Israel-Palestine conflict is a more salient issue to Muslim voters than the wider population, their main concerns remain the cost of living and the NHS, on both of which Labour has enjoyed a strong lead on for months. Those prioritising these issues are still more likely to lean toward Keir Starmer in an eventual election. Even if polls narrow nationally, a sizeable majority of British Muslims still say they would plan to vote Labour- over 60%.
Third, we find that most Muslim voters tend to be concentrated in seats with large Labour majorities. Consequently, any swing against the party (or decreased turnout) would likely have little impact on the constituency result. Even in marginal seats where this population is undoubtedly influential, a downward turn in support among Muslim voters would likely be counteracted by a large swing toward Labour among other voting populations- not least those who voted for other parties in 2019. Realistically, though Labour’s national vote share among Muslim voters may decrease, these votes are likely not effectively concentrated enough to have an impact on seats.
How long the conflict will endure, and whether Starmer’s response will shift, is yet to be seen. The anger and frustration of many British Muslims is likely to impact the unity of the Labour Party, its traditional link with this community, and Keir Starmer’s reputation among them. It’s unlikely, though, to have much of an impact on the result of the next election.
By Sophie Stowers, Research Associate, UK in a Changing Europe.