Electoral comeuppance for moral leadership failures

Electoral comeuppance for moral leadership failures

Electoral comeuppance for moral leadership failures
Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer with East Midlands' new mayor, Claire Ward, on May 4, 2024. (REUTERS)
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In Britain, America and much of the Western world, there has been much nervous talk about the “Muslim vote.”

In last week’s local council elections in England, the Labour Party significantly underperformed in some urban areas where voters, angered by the party’s position on Gaza, turned out in favor of independent candidates. In US states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party is nervous about turnout in November’s presidential election because of very similar demographics, including progressive and Black voters.

Commenting on one particularly close contest in England, a Labour Party source was widely condemned for telling the BBC: “It’s the Middle East, not West Midlands that will have won … Hamas are the real villains.” Labour suffered the surprise loss of control of Oldham Council in northwest England, where it lost several seats to pro-Palestinian independent candidates. Labour’s Sadiq Khan, meanwhile, comfortably secured a third term as mayor of London after unambiguously calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, in notably more forceful language than the leadership of his party.

However, the reason that Gaza is such a threat to mainstream political parties is that it is not a “Muslim” or an “Arab” issue. It is a foreign policy and defining humanitarian issue in which the vast majority of ordinary voters are uncomfortable with official policy, even though certain demographics — young people and students, ethnic minorities, those with Middle East connections — feel particularly strongly. Even among right-leaning Conservative voters I speak to, there is horror at what Benjamin Netanyahu has been allowed to get away with.

Within Western politics, it has tended to be an article of faith that serious politicians who desire to rise to the top must be unstintingly pro-Israel, their views enforced by aggressive and well-funded lobbyists who can be brutal with those who fail to toe the line.

The Labour Party’s previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and others on the party’s left flank were perpetually under fire for their pro-Palestinian sentiments. Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, participated in a disastrous interview early in the Gaza crisis, when he appeared to justify collective punishment by agreeing that “Israel has the right” to withhold power and water from Palestinians. Although the Labour Party rowed back from those comments, the damage was done with many traditional Labour voters, who may never forgive Starmer.

Gaza is a defining humanitarian issue in which the vast majority of ordinary voters are uncomfortable with official policy

Baria Alamuddin

In the case of both Starmer and US President Joe Biden, their right-wing political rivals are obviously even more staunchly supportive of Netanyahu. But many voters perceive both of these dominant options as fatally compromised on foreign policy ethics and consequently are inclined to vote for alternative candidates, or refrain from voting at all. Cosmetic token gestures do not go nearly far enough to start winning such voters back. There is a failure to recognize the massive irreversible shift in global public opinion around human rights, largely resulting from Netanyahu’s flagrantly genocidal campaign. These younger and increasingly diverse demographics are, by definition, the voters and decision-makers of the future. This is not a temporary “problem” with a few Muslim-heavy political constituencies, but a permanent tectonic transformation in geopolitical realities.

News broadcasts have been dominated by increasingly militarized and brutal crackdowns against US campus protests, with 2,300 people arrested over the past two weeks as the movement spread to more than 150 colleges in the US alone. In the UK, there has been notable activism in locations such as University College London and Goldsmiths University. The Conservative Party has urged an “extremely strict response” to campus protests. Meanwhile, every weekend, dozens of buses transport tens of thousands of people into London and other cities for mass protests. Efforts to stigmatize such demonstrations as a “Muslim” issue are just one step away from demonizing those involved as “antisemitic radicals” and extremists.

While Britain’s Conservative Party nevertheless appears destined for near annihilation at the general election this year, a collapse in support from key Labour demographics could produce a split result. In the US, the outcome looks far more precarious, with the Democrats’ loss of Michigan and Pennsylvania likely to herald a Donald Trump administration.

Governments in Spain, Ireland and Greece have been in the vanguard of European leanings toward a more pro-Palestinian stance, advocating unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Colombia has joined a growing list of Latin American states to sever ties with Israel, following Bolivia and Belize, while Chile and Honduras have recalled their ambassadors. Turkiye has, meanwhile, suspended its $7 billion-a-year trading relationship with Tel Aviv.

Leading Western political parties share some of the blame due to their collective failure to follow through with efforts for a two-state solution in the face of disruptive tactics by Netanyahu and his ilk. Part of this is a failure of vision in anticipating crises and taking measures to prevent conflicts. The international community’s absolute failure to take any tangible action to address the Sudan catastrophe is a case in point.

A UN Humanitarian Affairs spokesman has warned that an Israeli military incursion into Rafah in southern Gaza could be a “slaughter of civilians” and an “incredible blow to the humanitarian operations.” The World Food Programme described the situation in northern Gaza as a “full-blown famine,” which is “moving its way south … it’s horror.” Among these horrors is the increasingly prevalent technique of performing surgery, including Caesarean sections and amputations, without anesthetic, leaving patients “to scream for hours and hours,” as one doctor related.

Netanyahu’s extreme-right cabal has continued its slide further from democratic principles with a law allowing the banning of foreign media organizations, with Al Jazeera already the first victim. Journalists have mostly been prevented from accessing Gaza. Meanwhile, UNESCO last week dedicated its press freedom award to all Palestinian journalists, more than 90 of whom have been killed covering the conflict.

One of the benefits of democracy is that politicians, if they desire to win elections, must align with the sentiments of voters. This major realignment in global public sentiment toward greater support for the humanitarian principles underpinning the Palestinian cause is already starting to enforce a change in international political rhetoric. Politicians who fail to get on board by adopting ethical and just policies will ultimately learn painful lessons at the ballot box.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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