‘Don’t take us for granted’: Muslim voters send message to Labour over its Gaza stance

When Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth lost his Leicester South seat to the pro-Palestine independent candidate Shockat Adam, it was widely seen as one of the biggest upsets of election night.

But a walk along Evington Road, a busy shopping street with a large Muslim population in the constituency, showed that all the signs were there.

Posters and banners calling on people to vote for Adam were plastered on every other shop, while dozens of Palestine flags blew in the breeze along streets of terrace houses. Gaza is a huge issue here, alongside frustration with Ashworth’s performance locally.

“I was always a Labour voter, but it was [Ashworth] who changed me because he became complacent. He didn’t listen to us. When he abstained from the Gaza vote, he closed his doors on us. That wasn’t good enough,” said Kauser Patel, 37, a local business consultant who has been campaigning for Adam.

Despite the signs, his win on Thursday came as a shock even to his campaign, Patel said. It had attracted dozens of volunteers – many of them young – in recent weeks.

“We knew it was going to be hard, so we weren’t even thinking about winning. Canvassing has been tough, we were mainly speaking to Labour voters, trying to make them understand where we were coming from,” she said. “When he won, I was elated.”

Kauser Patel, who campaigned for Adam, said the team had not even been thinking about winning but that she was elated when he was victorious. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Ashworth, who was the shadow paymaster general, had held the seat since 2011 and secured a majority of more than 22,000 in 2019. He was expected to take a seat in Keir Starmer’s cabinet and his Midlands constituency was considered safe Labour territory.

Patel was keen to stress that while Gaza was a key factor behind many people’s vote, Adam’s personal likeability, and his stance on issues such as improving the NHS and abolishing the two-child benefit cap, also went down well with residents.

He is an optician well-known in the area and has a strong presence on social media. “He’s well spoken and seems down to earth. It feels like he’s one of us and he’s inspired a lot of people,” said 26-year-old Saif Ali, who works on Evington Road in a shop for a charity, Al-ianah Humanity Welfare, raising money to send to people in crises abroad.

“I live right opposite the polling station and I was surprised at the amount of young people coming and going. I think that’s the thing with Adam, he engaged the youth on social media. A lot of young people just used to vote for Labour because their parents did, and I think that’s changed.”

The result here was probably compounded by other liberal voters turning away from Labour, such as 22-year-old politics student Daisy Sore, who voted Green instead. “I would consider myself a Labour voter but I don’t agree with where Keir Starmer has taken the party, and Ashworth’s delayed call for a ceasefire in Gaza was a real sticking point for me,” she said.

Ashworth was not the only high-profile Labour politician who became a victim of the party’s Gaza stance. In Birmingham, Khalid Mahmood, England’s first Muslim MP, lost the Perry Barr seat he had held since 2001 to the barrister Ayoub Khan, a former Liberal Democrat councillor who quit the party over Gaza.

All eyes had been on Birmingham Ladywood and Yardley – where pro-Palestine candidates wiped out Labour’s majority and came in second place. Across the city, Labour’s standing now looks shaky – in Birmingham Hall Green and Moseley, once considered one of the party’s safest seats, two independent candidates won more votes combined than Labour, suggesting the party might have lost if just one independent had stood.

Mahmood insisted his defeat was not down to the Gaza issue, which he said he had spoken out about, but he did admit the issue had “emotionally tugged” voters.

Daisy Sore (L), 22, a student, voted for the Greens instead of Labour and said Gaza was ‘a sticking point’. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

In Dewsbury and Batley in West Yorkshire, Labour’s Heather Iqbal – a former adviser to the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves – lost by nearly 7,000 votes to Iqbal Mohamed, an IT consultant who quit the party over its stance on the war in Gaza.

After Friday prayers, worshippers who spilled out of the Masjid e Mahmoodiyah in Batley were full of praise for Mohamed and his campaign. “I’m pleased that he’s won,” said Raja Waseem, 25. “We want people who will stand for things like Gaza and Palestine. I think the young generation can look up to him.”

“I was overwhelmed when I woke up this morning,” said Ash Hussain, 38. While Gaza was an important issue for him, he said he was also impressed by what Mohamed had achieved without a party machine. “He’s from a working-class background, and I think he’s done really well.”

Over the border in East Lancashire, another independent candidate, Adnan Hussain, overturned an 18,000 Labour majority in Blackburn. In 2019, while surrounding bricks in the “red wall” fell to the Tories, Blackburn looked rock solid – credited, at least in part, to the loyalty of south Asian voters.

“After 69 years of having a Labour MP, Blackburn has sent a message that Palestinian lives matter, and Muslim votes can’t be taken for granted,” Yusuf Patel, a religious leader in the town, said.

“This was not a message to the [former Labour] MP Kate Hollern, because she had an excellent track record when it came to Palestine, but it was a message to the Labour leadership.”

Salim Sidat, the former Labour councillor who led Hussain’s campaign, said: “We just want to send a message very, very clearly to Keir Starmer, and anybody in the world, that Muslim votes should not be taken for granted.

“We wanted somebody to stand up, we wanted Labour to stand up, people we’ve been voting for all our lives,” he said. “Keir Starmer was the issue, Kate Hollern was not the issue.”

Shops on Evington Road in the Leicester South constituency had posters and merchandise bearing the ‘free Palestine’ slogan. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

The Blackburn Labour councillor Shaukat Hussain added: “Gaza was the No 1 issue, there’s no doubt about that. So it was difficult to talk about the manifesto, to talk about Labour’s policies.”

Ibrahim Master, another former Labour member who worked on Hussain’s campaign, said “hundreds if not thousands” like him had resigned their party membership over Gaza.

“We need to send a message to Starmer and the Labour party hierarchy that you cannot take Muslim votes for granted, and you also have to take other views into consideration. We have supported the Labour party for well over 40 years, but that doesn’t make you take our votes for granted,” he said.

Master said that in his view, Starmer’s party could win Muslim voters back in seats like these. “The Labour party left us in a way, we didn’t leave the Labour party,” he said.

Patel added: “If Labour revisited its foreign policy, and takes a neutral stance, and upholds international law, and campaigns for justice, then I see no reason why people wouldn’t revert, or at least consider their position.”

The Guardian

Leave a Reply