Rod Liddle Rod Liddle

Labour’s Gaza problem

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The district of Pendle in Lancashire has a long history of dissenters, nonconformists, witches and murderers. Perhaps because it is so sodden and bleak and northern: life is nothing but an impoverished struggle against everything, accompanied by the occasional maniacal cry of the curlew and the demented smoke-alarm call of the lapwing. The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 are famous and many locals have campaigned to have the seven women and two men who were hanged posthumously pardoned. I don’t know if they were witches, but they certainly sounded hugely irritating – especially Alice Nutter, who lived up to her name.

The more Starmer sticks to a nuanced line, the more his opponents within the party will begin to bark

It is sometimes argued that we shouldn’t hang people simply because they are irritating, but with each year that passes I find myself more and more at odds with that point of view. Anyway, the area boomed for a while when the looms were spinning away but is now broke and just a little bit squalid. Pendle has the highest rate of any local authority for child poverty in the country – 43 per cent. The principal town, Nelson – dowdy, windswept, boarded-up – makes Hartlepool resemble Monaco. The soaked, flat-topped, lowish Pennines envelop the area, providing a suitably isolated place for the locals to indulge in their strange hobbies of witchcraft and murder. Asians from India and Pakistan arrived in Pendle postwar to work in the mills, and Nelson is 52 per cent Muslim. For Pendle, the figure is 27 per cent.

Last week the psephologist Sir John Curtice predicted that Labour was 99 per cent certain to win the next general election. I don’t doubt that Labour is more likely to win, but I think that Sir John should spend a night or two in Nelson to see some of the problems which Labour is busy storing
up for itself.

Sir Keir has just lost 20 councillors in Pendle and hence joint control of the borough council itself. This huge tranche objected, as one, to being told by the leadership to shut the hell up about Israel and Palestine and have decamped to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats (who have always had a strong presence of heavily bearded dissenters in the mill valleys of Lancashire and West Yorkshire). Of the 20 councillors who have left the Labour party, it seems that almost all were Muslim. The local parliamentary constituency – formerly just Pendle but set to become Pendle and Clitheroe for the next election – is a bit of a bellwether: a Conservative marginal in 2017, a solid Red Wall Tory win in 2019.

The Labour candidate last time around was a chap called Azhar Ali, whose name might be familiar to you. He was the official Labour candidate at the recent Rochdale by-election, until a selection of his anti-Semitic comments came to light and he was suspended and disowned by the party. Many of Ali’s Labour council colleagues still campaigned for him, mind.

This time Labour has selected a former copper called Jonathan Hinder to fight the seat. I do not think he is going to win. Mr Hinder needs the Muslim voters of Pendle to outweigh the Tory votes in Clitheroe, but he’s not going to get them, is he? Pendle’s Labour party is at war with the national Labour party and the Muslim voters know whose side they are on. It is true that all the parties in this rather benighted satrapy play to the gallery. A couple of years ago it was proposed that the Palestinian flag should fly from the council offices. Every single councillor voted in favour of the motion, including all of the Tories. The point, though, is that the Muslim vote still went almost entirely to Labour and it will not do so this time around.

I apologise for spending so much time discussing what might seem to be an isolated area of concern for Labour. But it is not an isolated area of concern – and has been something I’ve been banging on about for a good eight months or so. It may well be that the vast majority of the British voting public does not give much of a monkey’s about what is going on in Gaza, but that does not mean that, away from the Pennine witches and nutters, all is well.

First, the outright defiance of Starmer by the Pendle 20 undermines one of the leader’s strongest suits: the notion that he has a party united under his control and of agreeably moderate opinions. Second, what happened in Pendle will happen again, with varying degrees of harm to Labour, in a whole bunch of other seats across the country – largely where there is a large proportion of Muslim voters, but not exclusively so. (Don’t forget there are still a considerable number of Hamas groupies in the Labour party with names like ‘Jeremy’.)

To give you an idea of the extent of the problem, Pendle and Clitheroe ranks 34th in the list of constituencies with the highest number of Muslim voters. Every time this issue raises its head – and it will do so in constituencies from east London, via Birmingham and Leicester, deep into the northwest of England – more and more will be convinced that the Labour party nationally has deserted Gaza and thus deserted them. It would not surprise me terribly much if George Galloway – elected with some ease in Rochdale – were assigning winnable seats to Muslim candidates at this very moment, perhaps anticipating a couple of MPs to keep him company.

There is very little Starmer can do about it – and the more he sticks, with some principle, to a nuanced line on Gaza, the more his opponents within the party will begin to bark and the less attractive Labour will appear to the voters.


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