Its weakness on Gaza may cost UK Labour a majority in the next election

The voters will not ignore the party’s inability to strongly condemn, and demand an immediate end to, the unimaginable suffering being inflicted on more than two million civilians in Gaza.

A demonstrator holds a placard referencing Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as people protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, during a temporary truce between Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Israel, in London, Britain, November 25, 2023. REUTERS/Hollie Adams
A demonstrator holds a placard referencing Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as people protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza in London, Britain, November 25, 2023. [Hollie Adams/Reuters]

Earlier this month, across England and Wales, people went to the polls in local and mayoral elections in what was seen by many as a trial run for the next United Kingdom general election expected later this year.

At first glance, the results appeared to be in line with the widespread predictions of a Labour landslide at the upcoming general election. The main opposition party won big, while the governing Conservatives lost in more than half of the races they fought. However, a closer look at the voting trends, especially in areas that hold strategic importance, revealed a different reality that must concern the Labour central office: The party did not win big enough margins to feel assured that it would be able to form a majority government under the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post electoral system in the coming months.

Indeed, while the Labour Party unquestionably increased their vote in most areas, and even won control of councils in places they have not won for decades, they also saw a decrease in their vote in crucial areas with a high number of students and Muslims.

These two demographics, who have traditionally been loyal to the party, have been clear as to why they have decided to move away from Labour: Gaza.

The Labour Party’s approach to Israel’s war on Gaza has been found wanting since the beginning. Indeed, the official party line has often been supportive of the inhumane assault that has been inflicted upon the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza throughout the past seven months, which has seen the death and injury of almost 100,000, half of whom are children. Especially Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer’s comments during a televised interview, in which he appeared to approve the Israeli government’s cutting off of water and power to Gaza, have led a large number of Muslim voters and students, who care about human rights and the Palestinian struggle for liberation, to move away from the party.

Of course, it is not only students and Muslims who care about human rights and want Labour to change their stance on Israel’s war. A YouGov poll commissioned by Action For Humanity last month found that 56 percent of the general UK public – and a whopping 71 percent of those who intend to vote Labour –  support halting arms sales to Israel. The same poll showed that an even higher 59 percent believe that Israel is violating human rights in Gaza. All polling shows that the majority of the UK public now wants the brutal war on Palestinians in Gaza to come to an end; it seems they merely differ on how highly they prioritise the issue when deciding on who to vote for in the next general election. As the war continues to cause catastrophe to civilians, it is reasonable to expect more and more voters to move away from politicians who appear to support Israel’s assault on Gaza. This means Gaza will become an even bigger problem for Labour in the coming months if party leaders cannot reverse the widespread public perception that they are supportive of Israel’s war on the Palestinian enclave.

Under the first-past-the-post voting system in the UK, a party needs to win 326 constituencies to win a majority in the House of Commons and govern alone. To achieve this, Labour needs to secure 127 more seats than it did in the 2019 election. However, the 9.5 percent swing the party enjoyed in the local elections, if applied as is to general elections, would net them fewer than 100 seats, leading to a hung parliament.

Public figures who came out strongly with their condemnation of what is going on in Gaza and distanced themselves from the central Labour Party’s policy, like Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, won comfortably in their mayoral races for Greater Manchester and London respectively. Independents and Green Party candidates, who made their antiwar on Gaza stance a focal point of their campaign, defeated and took votes from the Labour Party.

It is clear what Keir Starmer’s Labour needs to do now to achieve the election victory they have long been waiting for: assume a clear, moral and principled position on Israel’s continuing assault on Gaza.

If the party wants to ensure a victory in the next general election with a margin that would result in a Labour majority, it must swiftly announce that once in government it would not only stop selling arms to Israel and call for an immediate and unconditional end to the war on Gaza, but also unilaterally recognise the state of Palestine.

The scenes of death and destruction unfolding in Gaza, where an unprecedented number of children have been maimed, killed and orphaned, have horrified the world. Israel’s promised ground offensive in Rafah, where more than a million displaced civilians are sheltering in an area not much larger than London’s Heathrow Airport, is expected to unleash further suffering on an already traumatised population. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme has already declared a “full-blown famine” in Gaza.

Therefore, for the Labour Party, opposing this war is not only an electoral necessity, but a moral responsibility. As the world watches with disgust the horrendous, impossible-to-imagine suffering being inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza, Labour needs to do the right thing, and demand an immediate end to Israel’s atrocities, not just to be on the right side of the electorate, but also to be on the right side of history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.