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Labour is struggling to hold on to the support of Muslim voters with new polling showing the damage caused by its stance on the Gaza conflict, ahead of a key by-election test in the north-west of England.
Many of the party’s MPs fear a backlash in the previously safe seat of Rochdale when residents head to the polls on February 29 in a vote triggered by the death of veteran Labour MP Tony Lloyd.
About 60 per cent of Muslims surveyed nationally would vote for Labour today, polling carried out by Survation on behalf of the Labour Muslim Network found. This was down from 86 per cent who voted for the party in the last election, according to a 2021 survey.
When undecideds were added, it declined even further to 43 per cent, according to data released on Monday. Conservative support among Muslim voters was down by 4 points to 6 per cent, while the Green party picked up 10 per cent of the vote, an increase of 9 points.
The LMN said the findings underscored how Labour’s response to the war in Gaza “was unacceptable and deeply offensive” to British Muslims. “The Labour leadership must change paths now or risk losing the support of the Muslim community for a generation,” it added.
Candidates standing in Rochdale include George Galloway, a former firebrand leftwing MP who took the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow from Labour in 2005, capitalising on public anger about the Iraq war.
Many Labour MPs are concerned their leadership has been too slow to raise concerns about the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which has led to about 27,000 deaths, according to Palestinian officials. In Rochdale, where about 19 per cent of the electorate are Muslim, Galloway will be hoping to fuel a backlash.
One Labour figure familiar with the seat said the party’s vote could be “squeezed” by Galloway on one side and the ex-Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who is standing for Nigel Farage’s rightwing Reform party, on the other. There was a risk the Labour vote would split, allowing a Conservative win, the person warned.
Danczuk has campaigned vociferously in the past on the issue of child grooming gangs, the subject of a scandal in Rochdale dating back more than a decade and still a highly contentious issue.
“What’s clear from the doorstep is who Galloway is chiming with — the demographic voting for him is young Asian men, who are angry,” they said, adding that older voters wanting a more leftwing stance from Labour may also turn to him.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer won praise in some quarters during the party’s annual conference last year when he said he would stand behind Israel after the attacks by Hamas militants on October 7, which Israeli authorities said killed at least 1,200 people, with 240 taken hostage.
Yet as the Palestinian death toll has soared during the Israeli military response, many colleagues felt he was too slow to confront Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
In particular, he gave an interview to LBC radio in which he appeared to say Israel had the right to withhold power and water from civilians in Gaza. He later said he did not mean humanitarian aid should be withheld.
In November Starmer suffered a rebellion when 10 frontbenchers quit and 46 other MPs defied him to back a parliamentary motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Despite jitters within Labour, Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, said the only other poll since October 7 had shown that as with the electorate as a whole, the cost of living, the NHS and the economy were all more likely than Gaza to be listed as top voting priorities among Muslim voters.
Labour would be worried ahead of the Rochdale by-election partly because it had lost Muslim votes in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said Ford.
“Secondly, they’ve had a particular problem with Muslim voters in by-elections, and thirdly, they’ve had a particular problem with Muslim voters and Galloway.”
Last week, David Lammy, shadow foreign secretary, called on Israel to comply fully with the orders of the International Court of Justice’s ruling on Gaza. The UN court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in Gaza but demanded Israel do more to prevent death and destruction.
Speaking in parliament Lammy previously said: “We need a humanitarian truce now — not as a short pause but as the first step towards what will stop the killing of innocents, provide urgent humanitarian relief, ward off famine, free hostages and provide the space for a sustainable ceasefire so that fighting does not restart.”
However, one Labour MP said the party still faced “fury” in a “green wall” of seats in east London and parts of the Midlands, as well as in north-west England, that have large Muslim populations.