Revolt Against Keir Starmer’s Labour by Long-Time Backers Puts Top Team Stars at Risk

(Bloomberg) -- Birmingham resident Johur Uddin has always voted Labour. But with the UK opposition party on the cusp of a potentially record election victory next week, the 56-year-old consultant says he’ll break with the habit of a lifetime on July 4 and mark his ballot paper with an X next to an independent candidate.

Most Read from Bloomberg

A perception that Labour has drifted from its roots, coupled with party leader Keir Starmer’s support for Israel in its war with Hamas in Gaza have driven Uddin away. The sentiment was shared by four of the five men with him at the Legacy West Midlands charity’s office in the Birmingham Ladywood constituency, who are eying independent candidates — with one also weighing the Green Party.

“The values of Labour have completely changed,” said Uddin. “Before it was more for the working people and there was a lot of social justice” — a focus that’s been lost, he said.

The Birmingham men provide a flavor of how some traditionally Labour-backing groups — a mix of Muslims, environmentalists and the left wing — are searching for a new voice after the party tacked to the political center in its bid for power. In constituencies with a Muslim population of 20% or more, Labour support is eight points lower than in 2019, while the Green vote climbed eight points, Bloomberg analysis of YouGov polling data shows. Bloomberg reporting also anecdotally suggests a move toward independent candidates by Muslim voters in some seats.

There’s little prospect the trend will cost Labour the election — the opposition leads Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives by more than 20 points in national polling and is projected to secure a record majority. But some of the party’s leading lights, including prospective justice secretary Shabana Mahmood and would-be culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire, could lose their seats, forcing Starmer into a reshuffle of his top team just as he gets his feet under the desk at 10 Downing Street.

Moreover, several Labour MPs, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they worry the change in Labour’s focus could store up problems for the future. Over a couple of election cycles, they said their safe urban seats could shift toward the Greens or independents without careful messaging in the constituency. The current strategy of appealing to voters switching from the Tories and those who backed Brexit isn’t geared toward urban, liberal electorates.

“The question is: is this going to be the sort of thing which hurts them for one election?” said Oxford University researcher Andrew Barclay. “Or is it actually a permanent chipping away at the emotional link between Muslim voters and the Labour party?”

The rumblings of discontent on Starmer’s left underscore the potential fragility of his political mandate, even if he wins big in Thursday’s election. Deep local fiscal problems and an increasingly uncertain global security environment means his would-be government could quickly face issues that exacerbates divisions in Labour.

Central to the shift in sentiment, especially among Muslims, is Starmer’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war. He’s been steadfast in his support of Israel’s right to self defense since the conflict erupted in October following Hamas’s deadly attack on Israel. In an early interview, he appeared to say Israel had the “right” to withhold power and water from Gaza — further damaging his standing with Muslims, as did the perception that he was slow to call for a cease-fire.

In a sign of how complicated the issue will be for Labour in power, Starmer on Saturday didn’t commit to publishing UK government legal advice on arms exports to Israel — something he has long called on Sunak’s administration to do.

“I haven’t seen it, I don’t know how up to date it is and therefore we’ll have to first win the election and then assess the situation,” he said in an interview. Starmer also said he accepts that publishing the full advice would be difficult, suggesting Labour could be willing to publish a summary instead.

Labour tensions have been exacerbated by Starmer’s refusal to allow his predecessor as party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to stand for reelection as a Labour candidate because of a row over antisemitism. Corbyn, a left-winger, was closely aligned to the Palestinian cause and in the past called Hamas his “friends.”

The fallout has seen Muslim councilors quit from Oxford to Manchester, Labour MPs stage a major parliamentary rebellion, and the party lose the Rochdale constituency to left-wing disrupter George Galloway in a by-election after suspending its candidate. Starmer’s popularity among ethnic minorities is the lowest recorded by any Labour leader since 1996, according to Ipsos.

Patrick Cunningham, a 26 year-old engineer, said Labour’s stance on Gaza has contributed to the decision by several of his friends to vote for Debbonaire’s opponent in Bristol Central, Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer, whose pledge to call for a Gaza cease-fire features large in her leaflets distributed around inner city shops.

But in the city in southwestern England — not known for its Muslim population — most residents who told Bloomberg they were moving to the Greens from Labour cited Starmer’s retreat on climate pledges in February, after he cut a pledge to spend £28 billion a year transitioning the UK to green energy by more than 80%.

That’s left Debbonaire fighting for her political life just as a government job beckons after serving 9 years in opposition. So-called MRP polls using seat-by-seat analysis by YouGov, Ipsos and We Think project she’ll lose, though others show her comfortably winning. Voters Bloomberg spoke to within her district were evenly split between the Greens and Labour.

One person familiar with the matter said Debbonaire has been privately thinking of her preparation for government as a “handover note” of her culture brief. Nevertheless Debbonaire — who beat Denyer by more than 28,000 votes in what was then Bristol West in 2019 and also beat the Greens into second place in 2015 — told Bloomberg last week that she’s confident of reelection.

Some 75 miles to the northeast, in Birmingham Ladywood, where almost half the population are Muslim, intention to vote Labour has plummeted by 29 percentage points since 2019, Bloomberg analysis shows. While none of the MRP polls suggest Labour will struggle there, party figures suggested Mahmood faces a tough battle against independent candidate and “Tiktok lawyer” Akhmed Yakoob — who won 20% of the vote in Birmingham in May’s West Midlands mayoralty election.

The progress made by independents is harder to gauge in MRP polls because the seat-by-seat projections often rely on data from previous elections, which may not capture them.

Mahmood declined to comment on her prospects, but previously told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast that Labour needs to regain the trust of the Muslim community.

Muslim dissatisfaction is also a factor in Dewsbury and Batley, where Heather Iqbal, a one-time aide to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, is standing. Former colleagues fret she could lose to independent candidate Iqbal Mohamed, whose posters adorn Batley’s lamp posts and shop windows.

In May’s council elections, independent candidates won 50% of the vote in the area, and some of the MRP polls suggest strong showings for the Greens, independents and Nigel Farage’s right-wing Reform UK party. Despite all the MRP polls predicting Labour will win the seat, none of the dozens of voters Bloomberg spoke to said they would vote that way.

Health care worker Ayesha criticized Labour’s response to the Gaza conflict, saying they’ve lost her support.

“I want to vote for the person who is supporting Gaza,” said Shakir Husain, a 44-year-old civil engineer.

“There’s some trust to build back,” Iqbal — a Muslim herself — said, echoing Mahmood over a cup of tea in central Batley, where a billboard of her opponent looms over a row of derelict buildings.

Mohamed, for his part, says that while the Tories have let the area down nationally, Labour has done so locally. “We need people who are from the community to just hold these elite rich politicians to account,” the Durham-educated management consultant told Bloomberg.

To be sure, Muslims make up just 6.5% of the population of England and Wales, rising to more than a third of voters in only a handful of seats. “The Muslim vote is not going to affect who has the keys to Number 10,” said Parveen Akhtar, a political scientist at Aston University, noting that Muslims don’t vote as a bloc.

In all, about five Labour seats may be in danger due to the loss of traditional voters, a senior party official said. One seat where the party faces a challenge is Islington North, which Corbyn has represented since 1983 and where he’s now running as an independent. Another official said that in Scotland, some hoped-for gains from the Scottish National Party aren’t turning to Labour as strongly as expected, with many contests appearing on a knife-edge.

“We are working hard to deliver as many Labour MPs as possible in the general election and our campaigners are bringing our message of change to people across the country,” a Labour Party spokesperson said.

With all the main polls tipping Labour for a huge win, it would be tempting for the party to ignore setbacks in a handful of seats. But Anthony Wells, Director of YouGov’s political polling warned the party should watch closely the results in places like Bristol, Birmingham and Batley.

“When they’ve had the cost of governing and making hard decisions in quite a difficult economic background, they’re going to face far more difficulty in terms of hanging on to voters,” Wells said. “They probably want to keep an eye on now where those potential weaknesses are so they know which places they need to protect and be defensive about in four years’ time.”

--With assistance from Eamon Akil Farhat and Ellen Milligan.

(Updates with Starmer interview comment in 10th paragraph.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.