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Will Muslim voters turn on Keir Starmer?

Keir Starmer visits the South Wales Islamic Centre on Sunday. Credit: Keir Starmer/X

October 25, 2023 - 1:05pm

During the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, then Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson wanted to impose a three-line whip on a motion demanding the Conservative government send arms to Israel. Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s erstwhile deputy who had resigned to support joining the European Economic Community, cautioned that it was a bad idea. The Labour leader erupted: “Look, Roy, I’ve accommodated your fucking conscience for years. Now you’re going to have to take account of mine.”

On the war’s 50th anniversary, thousands of Hamas militants entered southern Israel and carried out the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, showing no regard for age or gender. Swiftly, Labour leader Keir Starmer robustly condemned the actions and defended Israel’s right to respond.

But in recent days, Starmer has faced a backlash within his own party. Two dozen Labour councillors have resigned, including eight on Oxford City Council, depriving the party of its outright majority. Labour MPs are openly defying their leader’s line on Gaza. Members of the usually quiescent Shadow Cabinet have voiced their dissent.

Putting aside the important moral questions at stake, there is an electoral problem for Starmer. Although there are differences of opinion within the communities, Jewish voters are more likely to agree with Starmer’s response. Yet, Jews are not a major part of the Labour electorate. Just 0.5% of the British public is Jewish. Only about a fifth of them vote Labour. This has been a longstanding problem for the party — and not one that began with Jeremy Corbyn. In 2019, only 20% of Jews voted Labour, but about the same proportions voted Labour in 2010 (21%) and 2015 (22%), even when Labour’s own leader was Jewish.

In contrast, the Muslim electorate is much larger. There are 14 times as many Muslims in Britain as there are Jews, and they are strongly pro-Labour. In 2019, nearly 80% of Muslims voted for the party, a significant shift from the New Labour period. In 2010, only about a third of Muslims voted Labour, with a majority voting Liberal Democrat. This was surely a reaction to the Labour government’s invasion of Iraq and some of its anti-terrorism measures, which were unpopular in Muslim communities. Labour’s difficulties cost the party seats like Bradford East (Lib Dem) and Bethnal Green (Respect).

Starmer thus finds himself in crosswinds. His leadership was premised on the idea that he was an unequivocal friend of Israel. He has defended its right to national self-defence, including bombing Hamas targets in Gaza. Yet, this stance could offend a sizeable group of Labour voters.

If Labour alienates Muslim voters, there could be serious ramifications at the next election. There are just five parliamentary constituencies where Jews make up more than 10% of the population, and the only one which Labour currently holds (Bury South) is thanks to a defector from the Conservative Party. In contrast, there are 108 constituencies which are at least 10% Muslim. Labour won 83% of these seats at the last election. In the 40 constituencies where Muslims make up at least a fifth of the population, Labour won all but one of them.

This explains why Labour MPs who are normally loyal to Starmer have begun to push back. Left-wing MP Richard Burgon tabled an Early Day Motion calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Gaza. Yet, many of the names are not Socialist Campaign Group affiliates. Liam Byrne and Stephen Timms, ministers under Blair and Brown, have both signed. They represent constituencies which are 65% and 42% Muslim, respectively.

Unlike with Harold Wilson in 1973, it is unlikely Starmer will ask his MPs to accommodate his conscience on Israel. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of any issue on which Starmer cares as strongly as Wilson did about Israel (or even Jenkins on Europe). Still, the mini-exodus that he has faced could present the Labour leader with problems going forward. If he starts to soften his stance too much, he may end up undermining yet another rationale for his leadership.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

richardmarcj

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N Satori
N Satori
8 months ago

So the great change has started. Next year we are likely to have a Labour government dependent on those Muslim constituencies to stay in power. Diversity isn’t our strength – it’s theirs.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Do they ‘depend’ on them tho, if as Peter Kwasi-Modo says, they’ve nowhere else to go on this issue ?

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
8 months ago

Labour’s bizarre little alliance with Islam will end in exactly the same fashion as the left wing students partnership with Khomeini. How does a party supposedly on the side of the marginalised support a military-political ideology masquerading as a religion whose only aim is to the cover the whole world in nihilistic darkness? And still get to claim they’re the good guys.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
8 months ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Indeed. Conflicts create strange couplings. Many Iranians on the left who had been promised power sharing were imprisoned and executed after the fall of the Shah. My enemy’s enemy is my friend is only a temporary state of affairs. Once the enemy is destroyed, there is a power vacuum and previous allegiances are forgotten in the generally bloody fight for power.

Last edited 8 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
8 months ago

Oughtn’t political leadership be about a bit more than counting up all the constituencies in the country which have lots of Muslims or lots of Jews, and then assuming that they – but nobody else – shift their votes entirely based on policy around Israel / Palestine? Starmer served on Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench, and campaigned in two general elections to make him Prime Minister. It’s not only Jews who will be looking closely at Labour’s credentials around antisemitism and Islamist terrorism.

Last edited 8 months ago by Stephen Walsh
David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Only one constituency in the entire House is even 20 per cent Jewish, and the Tories have held it ever since 2010. Jews and Arabs are as numerous as each other in Britain, with each of them the same size as the number that professes to have a gender identity different from its biological sex. Yet two of those three halves of one per cent have vast cultural and political influence, while unless you count a few billionaire princelings who live in London intermittently, the other has practically none. Add to that the fact that a large minority of British Jews does not agree with what is being done, and will be done, to Gaza.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago

Indeed, it’s difficult to think of any issue on which Starmer cares as strongly as Wilson did about Israel (or even Jenkins on Europe). 

I think you’re being unfair. Starmer cares passionately about becoming Prime Minister and would cheerfully accept a dinner invitation from the Devil if he thought it would help in that cause.

David McKee
David McKee
8 months ago

That Early Day Motion…! They might as well call it the “We’re going to let Hamas get away with it’ motion. Stop the bombing. Let the goodies flow into Gaza. Then we’ll ask Hamas very nicely to let the hostages go. And we’ll say no more about the recent unpleasantness in southern Israel.
Which is why only the oddest of Tory oddballs has signed up, with no signatures from the Liberal Democrats or Northern Irish MPs at all.
“Birds of a feather…”

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
8 months ago

It may be that some of the white working class who voted Tory last time are considering voting Labour in the next election, but need some assurance that Starmer is not going to cave in to every demand from the Muslim community. Given that Sunak’s stance on the Middle East is similar to Starmer’s, disgruntled Muslims who have hitherto supported Labour are unlikely to switch their allegiance to the Tories.on the basis of this issue. So there could be a net gain for Starmer, in terms of proportions of the vote in marginal constituencies.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

Good point.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
8 months ago

‘need some assurance that Starmer is not going to cave in to every demand from the Muslim community.’
I would suggest that one could just as easily say that a lot of people (not just ‘white working class’ voters) would rather like some assurance that Starmer is not going to cave into every demand from ANY identity community.
If Muslims are not gruntled then so what. Lots of people are unhappy. It is not for me or for anyone else to tell any voters how to benchmark the candidates or what their priorities in life should be. But if a lot of people are worried about Starmer’s relationship with identity politics then that is an equally legit thing to consider when it comes to voting – indeed Starmer did kneel for BLM so it’s not as if he’s tried to keep his liking for identity causes out of the spotlight.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
8 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

The reason I mentioned “white working class” was because they are the ones who deserted Labour for the Tories at the last general election in the so-called “Red Wall” seats. Winning those seats back has got to be part of Starmer’s election strategy. So, in effect, persuading each of those voters to move back to Labour is worth two votes: +1 for Labour and -1 for the Tories.
By contrast, offending a muslim voter over Gaza only loses one vote because they are nulikely to vote for a Hindu with roughly the same stance concerning Gaza.

El Uro
El Uro
8 months ago

These politicians, press and academics are confidently leading nations towards civil wars

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
8 months ago

“In 2019, only 20% of Jews voted Labour, but about the same proportions voted Labour in 2010 (21%)
”. There is no way that could be true. Survey results before the 2010 election indicated that Jewish voters were quite evenly split between Labour and the Tories. By 2019, a survey found only 7% of British Jews would even consider voting for Labour. This was reflected in the weak performance by Labour in consistencies such as Finchley & Golders Green and Hendon in 2019, against the trend of an increase in the Labour vote across London between 2010 and 2019.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Oh, you don’t like the facts, do you? “Just 0.5% of the British public is Jewish. Only about a fifth of them vote Labour. This has been a longstanding problem for the party — and not one that began with Jeremy Corbyn. In 2019, only 20% of Jews voted Labour, but about the same proportions voted Labour in 2010 (21%) and 2015 (22%), even when Labour’s own leader was Jewish.” Quite. That any one of those facts, never mind all of them, can appear here in what amounts to the mainstream media, only goes to show that there is no risk of an economically egalitarian Government after the next General Election.

Paul T
Paul T
8 months ago

They are not “Muslim MPs” they are MPs that happen to also be Muslim. Being Muslim does not form the slightest part of their qualification to be members of parliament.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
8 months ago

Years ago people were baffled when everyone started saying Labour’s anti-Semitic. In the North East of England, people were : “Eh?!? what??”. But the fact is that Muslim constituency was already on the rise, but the mad hard Labour left just wanted to ignore that, so they all seemed to pretend it was all the 60 year olds and 70 year olds down the ‘cluuurb’ that were mysteriously turning anti-semetic.
It never was…it was always the Muslims cranking it up

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

“Awaiting for approval.” Again. This site needs to abandon the subscription model and just be openly funded by the Israeli Embassy.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Why?!?

Surely you don’t think the Israeli Embassy would be in favour of funding you to come here and tell lies more quickly than Unherd allows you to, for a fee?

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Any Israeli embassy staff reading this: I accept cash or charge. No personal checks.

m pathy
m pathy
8 months ago

Please send a few $$ my way too.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

In this country, Jews and Arabs are the numerous as each other, yet one of those halves of one per cent has vast cultural and political influence, while unless you counted a few billionaire princelings who lived in London intermittently, the other has practically none. Add to that the fact that a large minority of British Jews does not agree with what is being done, and will be done, to Gaza.

Anyone who chose immigration and “multiculturalism” as their ground in 2023, had better not have had few, if any, ancestors in these Islands in 1873, and almost certainly none in 1823. Not our choice of ground, brothers and sisters. Not our choice of ground. I have been telling you for years about the free speech Johnny-come-latelies who had been all in favour of cancel culture when they had been the ones doing the cancelling. They have not changed a bit. What colour is a snowflake?

Israel has squandered any sympathy that the original attack may have gained it, as those of us who had been reared on the memory of the Mandate knew that it would. Support for it turns out to have a popular following only in the United States, and even there the other side now also has one, which is far younger, far more active, and far better-educated. Such support is also a self-conscious mark of real or imagined elite status there and in a handful of other countries, including Britain. But in most of the world, it simply does not exist. Where it does, then loyalty is tested by the willingness to degrade oneself by uttering the official Israeli account of the bombing of the Al-Ahli Arabi Hospital, and by not mentioning the attack on the Church of Saint Porphyrius, which by the way killed several of Justin Amash’s relatives. Thus tested, our dear Prime Minister and our dear Leader of the Opposition both pass with flying colours.

El Uro
El Uro
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

“Israel has squandered any sympathy that the original attack may have gained it” – You are very foolish thinking that Israel expects any sympathy from those who hate it and celebrated on the same day in the morning

Last edited 8 months ago by El Uro
m pathy
m pathy
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

The missing bits from your silly analysis : One ethnic group contributes to the nation, the other has attacked the nation that houses it in many different ways from beheading off duty soldiers to blowing up arenas of teenage girls.One group has been part of the weft and warp of European culture for centuries, the other are cultural enemies and invaders.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

Keir Starmer has tried to change his tune, or at least his tone, on the cutting off of the food and water supplies to one million children while white phosphorus was dropped on them. He is trying to rescue a Muslim vote that has already sunk without trace. Victories at Tamworth and at Mid Bedfordshire need to be set against that among other wider realities. But Starmer did originally endorse those war crimes, thereby aiding and abetting them, and thus rendering himself a war criminal. Crispin Blunt’s notice to prosecute him, David Lammy and Emily Thornberry ought still to be acted upon, and ought now to be extended to Lisa Nandy.

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

You appear not to understand what war crimes are. There is no obligation to supply food, water or anything else to your enemy’s civilian population. Have you heard of a siege? There is also no obligation to not attack military targets just because your enemy surrounds them with civilians.
The war crimes here are all on Hamas for using their civilian population as shields and sacrificial lambs to sway world opinion.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

I know exactly what war crimes are, and your assumption that nothing that the Israelis or the Americans did could ever be one is mistaken.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

In which reality will they be war crimes, or are you just lying?
The Rome Statute is fairly clear who is committing a war crime here.

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Cite one thing Israel has done so far that is a war crime under the actual treaties that govern these things. Killing civilians while attacking legitimate military targets, or by mistake, is not a war crime. Cutting off supplies to Hamas’ civilian population is not a war crime.

Last edited 8 months ago by Arthur G
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

Until Israel grants the Palestinians sovereignty and their own nation, then they do have a duty of care towards civilians in Gaza and the West Bank

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

People might take you more seriously if you didn’t repeat such obvious falsehoods as the long-debunked claim that the Israelis are dropping white phosphorus on children.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Whether they are or they aren’t, Starmer said that they were entitled to.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

This perspective is fine if that’s what you like, but your comment portrays Hamas as hapless victims with no agency. No one forced Hamas to massacre 1500 people in the most inhumane way imaginable.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

That figure has been far exceeded by the other side now. It was about as many as die each year on British roads, and in fact nearly 200 fewer than did so last year.

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

So what? The Israeli goal is not to kill Palestinians, it’s to destroy Hamas.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Unimpeachable “two wrongs make a right” logic there !
Perhaps I’m just a bit confused here, but if Hamas hadn’t killed 1500 odd Israeli people first, it’s hard to see how Israel would have killed “far more” in return.
Some of your comments do sometimes contain some sense and don’t deserve all the downvotes. But this one’s a shocker.

Last edited 8 months ago by Peter B
Benjamin Dyke
Benjamin Dyke
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Do you honestly believe the figures the Hamas public health authority gives out? I don’t. Why should you believe Hamas – because you want to? It’s the same Hamas that blamed Israel for bombing a hospital by the way and the same Hamas that also denies murdering civilians in Israel on Oct 7th.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

You’re not doing yourself any favours