The truth is that Gaza’s resonance stretches across diverse demographics

Keir Starmer appoints his cabinet from the Cabinet Office in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

It’s always telling, which votes are considered valid and which aren’t. Which ones are “tactical”, which express “legitimate concerns” and which are merely “sectarian”. The four independent candidates who won in last week’s election by harnessing frustrations about Gaza are already being treated as a worrying sign of the emergence of sectarian politics. The implication is that it’s only Muslims who care about Gaza, and that they do so at the expense of their domestic concerns and loyalties. The truth is that Gaza’s resonance stretches across diverse demographics. It is both connected to and informed by other political grievances, and it has become the expression of something that our political climate has made it difficult to countenance – that voters can have principles they care about without this being an indication of extremism or irrelevance.

There has been a persistent tendency to treat frustrations about Gaza as crude, separatist and confined to a small but vocal minority. Despite poll after poll indicating that the majority of the public supports a ceasefire, politicians – in particular the leadership of the Labour party – continued to ignore the issue. As a result, four candidates campaigning centrally on Gaza took four seats, one of them Leicester South: thereby deposing Jonathan Ashworth, the erstwhile shadow paymaster general. Labour HQ can comfort itself that it’s only a small number in the grand scheme of things, that Gaza is (hopefully) not a permanent issue, and that in five years’ time it will no longer be relevant. That it’s only Muslims who are concentrated in high numbers in a small number of seats. But those four independent candidates won because non-Muslims voted for them too, and because many people didn’t vote at all.

Take Ilford North, where Leanne Mohamad came within a whisker of unseating Wes Streeting. The notion that Muslims turned out en masse just doesn’t stack up. Muslims make up a quarter of the constituency. If Mohamad had received all their votes, she would have won comfortably. A large number probably did vote for her, but others voted for Labour, Conservatives and the Greens, or didn’t vote at all. Turnout was down by more than nine percentage points across the constituency. The same applies to Birmingham’s Perry Barr seat, where the winner received a number of votes that is significantly lower than the number of eligible Muslim voters in the constituency. Turnout was down by almost 10 percentage points. The story is of more Muslims voting for independent candidates, and of fewer people voting overall. The bigger picture is of an uninspiring election that turned off many voters, Muslim and otherwise, coupled with an issue that galvanised voters, many of whom were Muslim, some of whom were not.

There is no breakdown of voters on ethnic or religious lines, but there are signs that independents did not just win off the back of one voting bloc. George Galloway’s loss in Rochdale is an outlier that tells us something about how such candidates needed to have wider appeal to secure a win. The Muslim vote created a locus around which others could coalesce. If one were to take a cross section of nationwide opinion polling on Gaza and the diversity of large protests across the country, it is clear that Gaza is far from a single-demographic concern.

Neither is the issue ringfenced from broader frustrations with the Labour party. During the months I have spent reporting on how Gaza has played out in domestic politics, I have never heard it mentioned without it being connected to other issues. It has become a way for communities to identify that they are not being listened to by politicians, and are on their own. It has been expressed as an indication that the party, in its handling of the war, has displayed the absence of a crucial ethical feature. An airless political culture that has come to treat matters of principle as matters of ideology has provided little means of understanding or addressing this loss of faith.

People who felt strongly about Gaza and refused to vote Labour on this basis did so partly because the issue stood for so much more: it suggested that the party’s rebrand had purged Labour of a moral backbone. When Keir Starmer says he will govern “without doctrine”, what he is not recognising is that centrism at home and “progressive realism” abroad is a doctrine, one that excludes the sort of compassion and solidarity that means so much to others. You can agree or disagree with Labour’s approach, but it would be partisan (dare I say, sectarian), to not recognise that it is based on an ideology that excludes many, rather than a neutral style of governance that only the irrational cannot get on board with.

It all may come to nothing. And it could be argued that it already has. Labour has won a landslide and a race to scope out the risks in the next election, an exercise in fortune telling. But what matters now is how we talk and think about what constitutes a healthy democracy, how we speak about voters, and how we define their rights to express political frustrations through the ballot box, even when we don’t share their passions. This country is theirs too. When it comes to Gaza, an historical episode of political participation that shows how mobilisation outside Westminster can upend powerful political settlements has been treated with incuriosity and prejudice.

In the post-Tory era, we can choose to try to understand this as the flowering of a political pluralism that can be embraced by a Labour party to its ultimate strength. Or we can dismiss and pathologise it. In doing so, we turn what Gaza has brought to the fore into another ambient disaffection that feeds into low engagement, low political trust and Reform’s toxic capitalisation on both – all tensions that will continue to build unless they are addressed. Majorities deliver political power, but minorities can deliver political accord. And God knows, we are in dire need of that.

Source: The Guardian

10 Jul 2024 by Nesrine Malik

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