Labour Election Gains in UK Tempered by Gaza Protest Votes

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(Bloomberg) -- Labour’s strong performance in local elections across England and Wales was dented as voters in some areas with large Muslim populations appeared to withhold support over the opposition party’s stance on the war in Gaza.

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Keir Starmer’s party notably lost control of the council in the Manchester suburb of Oldham — a traditionally Labour area where two of the party’s councilors quit last month to become independents, citing its Gaza policy. That undercut an otherwise impressive string of early results for Starmer, whose party won a vacant parliamentary seat in Blackpool South and took control of councils in Thurrock, Hartlepool and Rushmoor.

The result will bolster arguments from some in Labour that Starmer should adopt a more critical stance toward Israel’s military action against Hamas to rebuild unity before a general election expected later this year. Starmer has so far hewed closely to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s policy on Gaza, calling for a ceasefire while stopping short of urging Israel to withdraw unilaterally.

The result was the latest illustration of the challenge facing Western political leaders as they attempt to maintain support for Israel, which launched its operations after Hamas led an attack on the country on Oct. 7 that killed around 1,200 Israelis. More than 34,000 Palestinians have died in the fighting, according to authorities to Hamas, which the UK considers a terrorist organization.

In France, a socialist candidate for EU elections in June had to be evacuated from a Labour Day rally in St-Etienne after protesters threw paint at him over what they believed was his too accommodating stance toward Israel. In the US, a wave of university protests have highlighted the risk that dissatisfaction with President Joseph Biden’s Gaza policy could suppress Democratic turnout in places such as the key swing state of Michigan.

British political scientist John Curtice told the BBC early Friday that support for Labour had fallen by eight percentage points since last year in wards where more than 10% of residents identify as Muslim. In March, left-wing disrupter George Galloway won a seat in the UK parliament in a special election in Rochdale, another area with many Muslim voters, after campaigning on calling for an end to the conflict.

Starmer has sought to distance himself from the anti-Semitism accusations that dogged Labour under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, as he attempts to show the Labour Party has moved closer to the political center. Still, more than half of 2019 Labour voters thought that Starmer had handled his response to war in Gaza somewhat badly, according to a YouGov poll of 496 voters in early March.

The Labour leader, who would be on course to be Britain’s next prime minister if he can replicate the party’s performance this week in the upcoming general election, acknowledged on Friday that the Gaza issue was a concern. “There are some places where that’s a very strong factor and I understand that, respect that,” he told Sky News, adding that such sentiment would not “shut out the fact that this is a really good set of results for the Labour Party.”

Labour’s chances of winning the West Midlands mayoral election could also be impacted by voters critical of its position on the Middle East, Conservative peer and pollster Robert Hayward told Bloomberg last week. The result of that election is expected on Saturday.

--With assistance from Samy Adghirni.

(Updates with French, US incidents in fifth paragraph.)

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