Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 19 February 2024



Labour is being held to ransom over Gaza

The Times

Since when did Gaza become a British domestic political issue? The Rochdale by-election has turned into the Gaza by-election. It has also become a farce.

The demagogic, virulently anti-Israel George Galloway is standing for the Workers Party. The constituency is around 30 per cent Muslim, a community in which hostility towards Israel over its war in Gaza is matched by fury at Sir Keir Starmer over not calling for an immediate ceasefire. Accordingly, Galloway has said “I will speak on Gaza first, then Rochdale”, and has accused Starmer of being “in the pocket of Israel”.

Labour withdrew support from its own candidate, Azhar Ali, over his revolting claim that Israel had deliberately allowed the October 7 Hamas pogrom to occur to give itself “the green light” to invade Gaza, and over his blaming people in the media “from certain Jewish quarters” for Labour’s suspension of one of its MPs.

While Labour now has no candidate, the anti-Jewish conspiracy theorist Ali will still be standing. Meanwhile Simon Danczuk, the former Rochdale MP who was suspended by Labour after it emerged he had exchanged explicit messages with a 17-year-old girl, is fighting the seat for Reform UK.

What on earth does this by-election — which is turning not on domestic issues but on a war in which Britain isn’t involved, and has a cast list comprising a conspiracy theorist, a poisonous demagogue and a man shamed for “sexting” — say about the state of British politics?


Some local Muslims at least think the focus on Gaza is ridiculous. One said: “If you’re only talking about Gaza — which I feel passionately about — but you’re not talking about Rochdale, you’re not talking about the issues and problems that we have.”

Nevertheless, it’s idle to pretend there’s isn’t a distinct Muslim agenda in British politics in which support for the Palestinians and hostility to Israel play a huge part.

The Muslim Vote is a movement that seeks to leverage votes by Muslims in certain seats to influence the outcome of elections there. Its website lists all the constituencies where there is at least a 10 per cent Muslim vote. It shows how each MP voted on last November’s Commons motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, which was defeated. MPs who didn’t back a ceasefire, it says, “should never get our vote again”.

Whether such activism can affect the actual result is an open question. Polling analysis by The Times found that Labour’s lead was big enough for the party not to lose any currently held seats if Muslim voters turned away, and a Labour victory would be denied in only a handful of Tory-held constituencies.

But some Labour MPs in constituencies with large Muslim populations are already facing independent candidates intending to challenge them at the general election over the party’s position on Gaza.

Whatever the effect on results, such a movement is disturbing. This is a co-ordinated strategy to pressurise candidates in a British election to subscribe to a particular agenda focused on a foreign conflict. Moreover, while it uses hatred of Israel as a recruiting sergeant, its agenda is broader and dangerous to Britain itself.

Groups listed on the website as supporters include Mend (Muslim Engagement and Development), described in last year’s Shawcross report on the Prevent anti-extremism programme as an anti-Prevent group with a history of partnering with people whose extremism was a matter of concern.

Another supporter is the Muslim Association of Britain, which has historic links to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and was described by a government report in 2015 as having “consistently opposed programmes by successive governments to prevent terrorism”.


The Muslim Vote helps to fuel a vindictive atmosphere that threatens individuals in political life and which has put British Jews in danger by demonising Israel.

Starmer is clearly feeling the pressure before this week’s Commons vote on another SNP motion for an immediate Gaza ceasefire. On Sunday he appeared to be wriggling when he called for “a ceasefire that lasts … that is what must happen now”. The pressure on him comes not just from Muslims but from the fact that support for Palestinians and hostility to Israel are the default position in “progressive” circles.

In last November’s vote, dozens of Labour MPs defied Starmer to vote for an immediate ceasefire. But if Israel were to stop the war now, Hamas wouldn’t be defeated and would inflict further genocidal attacks on Israeli Jews — as it has declared it will do “over and over again” until Israel is destroyed.

Starmer is therefore trapped between losing the support of Muslims or Jews. He can’t afford to lose either, the first on grounds of electoral maths and the second on grounds of the party’s foundational claim to moral decency.

Meanwhile, the tsunami of antisemitism roars out of control. The Community Security Trust has reported a huge increase in attacks on British Jews last year — 4,103 anti-Jewish hate incidents in 2023, up from 1,662 in 2022, with two thirds of those incidents happening on or very soon after the Hamas atrocities of October 7.

Where the ethnicity of the perpetrators was recorded, between January 1 and October 6 a total of 56 per cent of perpetrators were white; but after October 7, 57 per cent were Arab, north African or Asian, while only 32 per cent were white. Is anyone prepared to join up the dots?

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