Local Elections 2024: Labour loses control of Oldham Council amid Gaza backlash

Credit: LDRS/Charlotte Hall

Labour has lost control of Oldham Council for the first time in 13 years - following a backlash over the party's stance on Gaza.

Independent candidates, several of whom explicitly campaigned in support of Palestine, gained five seats, leaving Labour with 26 councillors and pushing the council into no overall control.

Many have suggested the UK Labour leader’s stance on Gaza could be to blame – especially in wards such as St Mary’s, Alexandra and Coldhurst where there are large Asian and Muslim populations.

A number of independent candidates in these areas ran on ‘boycott Labour’ campaigns, while others used the colours of the Palestinian flag on their leaflets to show their support.

Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator Pat McFadden also acknowledged the crisis in Gaza had been “a factor in some places”, saying that with “so many innocent people being killed I’m not surprised people have strong feelings about that”.

But he added “very local factors” had also played a role in Oldham, while council leader Arooj Shah blamed “13 years of austerity” and a “divisive toxic politics” in the town that pre-dated the latest outbreak of conflict in Gaza.

Credit: PA Images

Gaza has become a fraught issue for the Labour Party, with multiple defections since October, including the loss of 11 councillors in Burnley in November.

Former Labour MP George Galloway has also sought to capitalise on the Gaza issue, winning the Rochdale by-election in February and saying he will challenge Labour with a series of pro-Palestinian candidates at the general election.

Speaking on Friday 3 May, Mr Galloway said: “We’re set to win big in Manchester City Council, with my candidate Shahbaz Sarwar set to knock out the Labour Deputy Leader in a stunning upset.

“We’ve broken through on Rochdale Council, with our new Council group set to be announced later on this afternoon.

“I said Keir Starmer would pay a high price for his betrayal on Palestine. Today is the start of that.”

A backlash over Labour’s stance on Gaza saw the party lose control of Oldham Council Credit: AP

Labour’s majority on Oldham Council, which it has controlled since 2011, had already been whittled down to just one ahead of the election after two councillors defected in April.

Councillors Nyla Ibrahim and Akhtar Shoab left the party to sit as independents, reportedly citing Labour’s response to Gaza, with councillor Ibrahim re-elected on Thursday.

Former Conservative Naveed Chowhan was also among the independents elected, having left his party over Gaza alongside former Tory councillors Abdul Wahid and Mohammad Irfan.

Labour remains the largest party on Oldham Council with 27 out of 60 seats, while the number of independent councillors has risen to 16.

There are also nine Liberal Democrats and eight Conservatives, meaning a coalition of opposition parties could topple the Labour administration.

Reacting to the results, council leader Arooj Shah argued the issue is not as simple as policies over Gaza.

She claimed "bad actors" in Oldham – and British politics – were ‘exploiting’ the issue to sow division amidst residents who already feel disenfranchised by the cost of living crisis and cuts to local spending.

“I think what we have seen tonight is an indication that people feel like mainstream politics – mainstream parties – aren’t for them,” she told the LDRS.

“We saw today that people were really turned off by democracy.”

Cllr Arooj Shah, was the first Muslim woman to take charge of a council in the north of England.

She said instead she believed a "toxic and divisive" culture had emerged in local politics in Oldham.

“Our politics has been torn apart by extremism,” she claimed. “You have disinformation, misinformation, smear campaigns and that puts people off standing.”

She argued it was scaring off people ‘who really care’ from getting involved with local politics “because they’re worried about the abuse they’ll get”.

Instead, ‘self-interested’ and ‘tactical’ candidates were using Palestine as a wedge issue – even though it had ‘nothing to do with local politics’, according to one Labour source.

Shah agreed, saying: “When you look at the situation in Palestine, which has been horrific, people have clearly voiced concerns.

"We called for a ceasefire with Andy Burnham and the other leaders across Greater Manchester very early on when this tragedy began.

"People want an outlet to voice their concerns and that’s legitimate.

“But what you also see is bad actors on the fringes of British politics that use and exploit those matters and we definitely saw that in Oldham.

"The matter was definitely manipulated and exploited [in this election].”

Newly elected Rochdale MP George Galloway says he will challenge Labour with a series of pro-Palestinian candidates at the general election. Credit: PA Images

A number of council sources suggested that group chats had been circulating on WhatsApp and Telegram with the aim of ‘shoring up’ support for independents on the basis that they would provide a voice for Palestinians.

Cllr Shah said: “In the last weeks, I’ve been continuously harassed and baraged online about why we’re not calling for a ceasefire – and we did! But at the end of the day we are local councillors. We’re trying to run a local council. Our concern is with local services.

“Our animosity should be towards the government who have made that really difficult for us over this time after years of cuts.”

But she acknowledged losing the majority in Oldham might send a message to the Labour leader.

“The message to higher ups in the Labour party is that clearly people care deeply about Palestine,” she said. “But we so desperately need a Labour government to give Oldham the break that it needs.”

The exact nature of the council leadership in future is uncertain. Labour is still the biggest political group in the council and Cllr Shah claims talks will take place in the next few days to establish exactly what the new administration will look like.

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