Labour must rebuild trust with Muslim voters, says senior MP

Palestinian flags at a demonstration outside Parliament
[Getty Images]

Labour's deputy campaign coordinator says her party needs to rebuild trust with Muslim voters, amid an apparent backlash over its stance on Gaza.

The party's position on the Israel-Hamas war appears to have dented its support in Muslim areas in England's local elections.

Labour's Ellie Reeves admitted it had "a lot of work to do" to rebuild support before the general election.

She added this included ensuring voters "understand our position".

In 58 local council wards analysed by the BBC, where more than one-in-five residents identify as Muslim, Labour's share of the vote was 21% down on 2021, the last time most seats were contested.

It was a downside to an otherwise positive performance for Labour, which saw it gain more than 170 councillors to take control of eight councils.

The potential impact on a general election is unclear, however, with some evidence the biggest drops in support are largely confined to areas where the party's support was already very strong.

And there are signs that any adverse reaction was less prominent in London, where incumbent Labour mayor Sadiq Khan called for a ceasefire before the party leadership did.

Labour's vote is up by three points on average in parts of London where more than 15% identify as Muslim, compared with 4.5% where the proportion is less than this.

Labour called for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza conflict in February, after months of wrangling over its position.

Its initial stance after the war began, in which it called for humanitarian pauses in the fighting, prompted Labour resignations in councils and from its frontbench last year.

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The decline in its vote share in areas with a big Muslim population appears to have been largely to the benefit of independent candidates standing in those areas.

Ali Milani, chair of Labour Muslim Network, said Labour's positioning on Gaza "is going to have a serious electoral consequence".

"If I was a Labour MP in Bradford or Birmingham or Leicester or parts of London or Manchester I would be seriously concerned," he added.

The Greens, who called for an "immediate ceasefire" just over a week after the war began, have also increased their share of the vote from 2021.

Co-leader Carla Denyer said Labour's stance on the conflict had been the "final straw" for some Labour supporters who were already disappointed by policy U-turns in other areas.

"I have met many voters on doorsteps who brought it up proactively as an issue," she added.

She also said "part of the Muslim community switching their votes" was also a factor in Newcastle, where the Greens gained their first-ever seats on the city council.

On Sunday, recently re-elected Worthing Councillor and Momentum co-chair Hilary Schan resigned from Labour in order to support pro-Palestinian candidates from other parties - and she has joined journalist Owen Jones's We Deserve Better campaign.

'Lot of listening'

Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Saturday, Ellie Reeves said: "We know that we've got a great deal of work to do to rebuild trust with Muslim communities.

"I understand people's concerns about what's happening in Gaza. The loss of life there has been intolerable - that's why we have called an immediate ceasefire".

She added that "a lot of listening needs to be done," and the party also needed to make sure voters "understand our position".

Labour's national election co-ordinator Pat McFadden echoed her, telling the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme that the situation in the Middle East was a "high foreign policy priority" for Labour, if it was elected.

"The better lives that people want for the Palestinian people is something the Labour leadership shares," he said.

He acknowledged that in some parts of the country, the conflict was proving a problem for Labour and said: "There will be some people who maybe voted Labour in the past who haven't in the local elections because of this issue and where that's the case we'll work to get people's support back."

In the West Midlands mayoral race, independent candidate Akhmed Yakoob, who campaigned on Gaza, won over 69,000 votes.

In Blackburn with Darwen, Labour lost council seats to independent candidates who quit the party over the leadership's Gaza stance.

It also faced a surge from pro-Palestinian independents in Bradford, where the Labour council leader said Gaza had been a "big issue".

The local party leader in Oldham said the conflict was a factor there, where Labour lost overall control of the council, but also blamed a wider unhappiness with "mainstream parties".

George Galloway's strongly pro-Palestinian Workers Party of Britain won four seats - two in Rochdale, one in Calderdale and one in Manchester, where they ousted the Labour deputy leader of the council Luthfur Rahman.

Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza to destroy Hamas in response to the group's attack on southern Israel on 7 October, during which about 1,200 people were killed and 253 others were taken hostage.

More than 34,500 people have been killed in Gaza since then, according to the territory's Hamas-run health ministry.