How Israel’s war on Gaza could impact UK election

How Israel’s war on Gaza could impact UK election

Foreign conflicts do not have a history of determining British elections (File/AFP)
Foreign conflicts do not have a history of determining British elections (File/AFP)
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How will the Israel-Gaza crisis play out in the July 4 general election in the UK? It will be a factor, as it has been in recent by-elections and local elections. But to what extent?

This is a joker question because nobody can quite be sure. It is one thing for voters to care about events in Israel and Gaza, but quite another as to whether this will influence their vote.

Let’s be clear. Foreign conflicts do not have a history of determining British elections. Tony Blair won a third successive election back in 2005 despite the Iraq war. It is hard to think of a previous British election where Israel-Palestine has been a factor. The overwhelming majority of UK politicians, including party leaders, do not make this issue a priority. They know elections are won on domestic issues.

Could 2024 be different? In some of the 650 parliamentary constituencies, it will be a factor. These include, but are not exclusive to, those with large Jewish or Muslim populations, largely in urban areas. British Muslims make up a majority in three parliamentary constituencies. Labour sources indicate they are fighting in 16 battleground constituencies where there are large Muslim communities. Half of British Muslims are aged 25 or under. This means that this is a demographic that is likely to be ever more influential in elections to come.

An independent candidate running on a pro-Palestinian platform is unlikely to do more than dent a potential Labour MP’s majority

Chris Doyle

But will they be an influential factor this year? The Labour Party is way ahead in the polls, typically by more than 20 points, so even an independent candidate running on a pro-Palestinian rights platform is unlikely to do more than dent a potential Labour MP’s majority. The electorate knows that independent MPs have limited power in the British parliamentary system.

The influence of Gaza may be more indirect. It may be more about how Gaza has shaped overall perceptions of party leaders and parties, such as how much they are liked or respected or how poorly they are perceived.

How party leaders have dealt with the issue of this crisis is key. Neither Prime Minister Rishi Sunak nor Labour leader Keir Starmer have impressed. And this matters. Although voters select a specific candidate in their constituency, it is the choice of leader that is uppermost in most voters’ minds. This is why the charismatic Boris Johnson fared so well in 2019 and why Theresa May, who is the polar opposite, found campaigning so tough in 2017.

Gaza is a challenge for Starmer because it is more of an issue for potential Labour voters. Sunak has incredibly low leadership ratings, so his inept performance over Gaza and even complicity in Israeli war crimes hardly alters matters. He knows he is unlikely to capture many pro-Palestinian or British Muslim voters. Back in 2021, one poll found that 72 percent of British Muslims said Labour was the political party they most identified with, while only 9 percent opted for the Conservatives. Two years earlier, polls showed Labour secured as much as 86 percent of the British Muslim vote.

Starmer has more to lose. He has alienated himself from supporters on several key issues regarding Gaza. It was not until February that he backed an immediate ceasefire, while more than 70 percent of the population has consistently backed that stance since October. He refused to call for an arms embargo on Israel, while one poll found that 62 percent of voters backed that, rising to a jaw-dropping 75 percent among those intending to vote Labour.

Starmer has more to lose than Sunak. He has alienated himself from supporters on several key issues regarding Gaza

Chris Doyle

But what is most remembered and viewed is an interview Starmer did, in which he appeared to justify Israel’s total siege on Palestinians in Gaza. He was asked whether Israel cutting off all power and water to Gaza was “appropriate.” Starmer said: “I think that Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation.” He added: “Obviously, everything should be done within international law.” That Sunak totally backed the siege can be forgotten, but Sunak is not really chasing British Muslim votes.

Does Starmer have an issue with Muslim and indeed ethnic minority voters? During the local elections at the start of May, a senior Labour Party source told the BBC: “It’s the Middle East, not West Midlands, that will have won (Conservative candidate) Andy Street the mayoralty. Once again, Hamas are the real villains.” Many Muslims saw this as offensive, disparaging their views.

Another accusation is that Starmer has led a purge of those candidates deemed to be too left-wing or even pro-Palestinian. At the same time, Labour has parachuted into safe seats candidates from Starmer’s wing of the party, including one extremist pro-Benjamin Netanyahu lobbyist who has called the UN antisemitic and supports illegal settlements.

Starmer’s Labour will win. But his limp positions on Gaza and lack of desire to hold Israel accountable could limit his majority and weaken him in the eyes of his party. This issue has damaged his standing before he even becomes prime minister.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. X: @Doylech
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