Starmer needs to build bridges with alienated Muslim voters

George Galloway overturned a Labour majority of more than 9,600 to win Rochdale's by-election and take the seat from the party after 14 years. Credit: PA

There is no panic at the top of the Labour party at George Galloway‘s victory in the Rochdale by-election.

The reaction of Sir Keir Starmer and his team is that the loss of what should have been a safe Labour seat “hurts”. What they are now doing is separating the unique Rochdale circumstances - largely their own incompetence that deprived them of a candidate - from any broader lessons.

It was inevitable that the presence of the left-wing firebrand George Galloway on the ballot paper would mean that Labour’s share of the Muslim vote would fall significantly.

Starmer’s team believe that if he hadn’t felt compelled to disown and expel their candidate for his antisemitic remarks - if they had what they view as a respectable candidate - Labour would have won, albeit narrowly in a seat that in normal times they would have won handsomely.

And there is the rub. Galloway, as is his forte, campaigned with emotion and passion on the single issue of Starmer’s alleged failure to forcefully call on Israel to cease the military action and killings in Gaza.

For much of the Muslim population in Rochdale, and some others, this was the sole issue that mattered.

Now there are not many Rochdales in the UK, constituencies with such a concentration of people motivated by a single perceived injustice. The tension over Israel’s military action has not dominated other recent by-elections in the way it did in Rochdale, and it won’t be the most important issue in this year’s general election.

But Starmer cannot simply shrug off as unimportant the alienation of a significant proportion of Muslim voters. If Labour is a One Nation party, which it claims to be, then that means it needs to be a party of all faiths and ethnicities.

Starmer needs to find a way of building bridges with these disillusioned Muslim voters, of hearing their concerns and explaining his.

I am told he knows this is a priority. I doubt however that means he will change his position in any fundamental way on the devastating and tragic events we are witnessing in Gaza.

To an extent, Starmer’s reputation and relationship with Muslim voters will be shaped by decisions that are and will be made by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM. That is an uncomfortable position for any British politician to find themselves in.

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