Ignoring Gaza a non-starter for new UK government

Ignoring Gaza a non-starter for new UK government

Ignoring Gaza a non-starter for new UK government
Jeremy Corbyn after submitting his candidacy for Islington North, June 5, 2024. (AFP
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Labour’s landslide UK election victory had, it is believed, one notable problem. A chunk of its core Muslim voter base chose to back pro-Palestinian independent candidates instead. As a result, four pro-Gaza MPs managed to beat Labour Party rivals to become, alongside Jeremy Corbyn — the long-time pro-Palestinian former leader of the party — the joint sixth-largest party or grouping in the new UK Parliament. This demonstrates that Labour has a bigger problem on the left of the party, driven by Gaza, than previously thought.
The months of demonstrations since Israel launched its post-Oct. 7 reprisal war showed that Gaza was a concern for parts of the UK electorate. And analysis of the electoral results has shown an across-the-board thinning down of Labour majorities in constituencies that are home to a sizable number of Muslims.
New Prime Minister Keir Starmer’s party faced criticism when he was leader of the opposition due to his reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire. Only in February did Labour call for an immediate ceasefire and it has since committed to recognizing a Palestinian state, but without giving a definite timeline, which many people believe is too little, too late.
Labour’s vote fell by 11 points on average in seats where more than 10 percent of the population identify as Muslim. It is dangerous when the politics of the Middle East becomes the key electoral issue for some communities in big British cities, instead of domestic grievances like hospitals, schools, the cost-of-living crisis, taxation and so forth.
About four in five UK Muslims voted Labour in 2019, reinforcing the historic links between the two that were forged after the mass migration of workers from Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s. However, in seats where Muslims make up more than a quarter of the population, the Labour vote decreased by 23 percent this time, according to LBC, a London-based radio station.
The government should, in its early days in power, quickly address its foreign policy agenda and its priorities, if only to keep single-issue politics at bay, as witnessed with immigration and Brexit with the outgoing Conservative government and now with Gaza. It is important that UK politics does not become polarized along the lines of continental Europe, where far-right and populist politicians have been winning more and more votes after running questionable single-issue grievance campaigns, which are whipped up among often easily manipulated voters.
For a start, I am not sure if new Foreign Secretary David Lammy has the international acumen, credence and weight needed to deal with the adversities of the Ukraine-Russia war. Or whether he has the ability to carve out a positive role for Britain in ending the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, while keeping an eye on the Middle East’s many other flashpoints, from Yemen to Iran via Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Red Sea.
This is a time when Britain’s foreign policy standing has been bruised, to say the least, after 14 years of Conservative Party government that was “caught up in an inward-looking conversation,” as Lammy said, and often acted in a conflictive way with allies and lacked a sense of purpose beyond negotiating the exit of the UK from the EU project.
Lammy’s early pledge to start reconnecting with “the global community” could be essential if the UK is to be able to regain some balance and power in its diplomatic influence. And though the new foreign secretary has his priorities right, the world he will have to deal with is dangerous, divided and discorded on everything from Ukraine to climate change, with some superpowers emboldened and others locking horns, reducing the space for diplomacy.
On Europe, Lammy said that the country needs “to put the Brexit years behind us,” following Starmer’s assurances that the UK will not rejoin the single market or customs union, despite the damage that Brexit has done to the UK economy and any future growth being heavily reliant on trade with Europe.
A redesigned relationship with Europe based on a shared vision and security cooperation is likely to be the first step, even if the commercial benefits are to be streamlined later. And from this shared vision, the adversities lurking in all four corners of the planet could maybe be better dealt with. EU-UK cooperation could include setting up strategies to deal with the potentially imminent and highly disruptive return of Donald Trump and his style of politics to the White House and factoring in how best to deal with the far-right and populist politicians that are likely to fill the EU’s corridors of power.

Labour’s vote fell by 11 points on average in seats where more than 10 percent of the population identify as Muslim.

Mohamed Chebaro

Too many ifs and buts are likely to plague the new UK government’s stance on Gaza, which has already cost it several seats. Lammy is likely to face scrutiny from the party’s left on his handling of the Gaza war and issues like UK arms sales to Israel. Labour has no option but to carefully calibrate its commitment to recognizing Palestinian statehood as a contribution to a renewed peace process that should result in a two-state solution. Although it will not want to risk alienating either the Biden administration by making unilateral moves in the run up to November’s US election or its British Jewish voters.
If elections in the UK and elsewhere have taught us anything, it is how easy some cross-border campaigning can influence the composition of a parliament or a government. The losses of Labour, though minor this time, were largely the deeds of a campaign called “The Muslim Vote,” which claims on its website that it is working to support Muslim interests. And though some among the British Muslim community might feel satisfied and emboldened by the group’s success, the Labour Party remains the key address for Muslim and other minority voters.
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Muslim voters punished Labour, but their defection was not permanent. This time around, matters might be different, so Labour — if it is to consolidate its grip on power and pave the way for more than one term in Downing Street — must work hard to allay the fears of parts of the electorate in an increasingly volatile and interconnected world.

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.
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