Gaza: East Lancashire Labour councillor resignations and Sir Keir Starmer letter amid anger over party's war stance
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Cllr Naeem Ashraf, who represents the Brierfield East and Clover Hill ward, confirmed to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that both he and Brierfield West and Reedley ward member Yasser Iqbal had resigned from Labour. They are now sitting as independents.
It comes as the leader of Lancashire County Council’s Labour opposition group joined almost 40 of the party’s elected representatives in Lancashire to sign a letter to Sir Keir Starmer calling for a shift in his stance over the conflict in the Middle East.
Nelson East division representative, County Cllr Azhar Ali, put his name to the two-page plea, which also tells the national party leader that comments he initially made about the war provoked “fury” and “outrage” amongst Labour supporters in some Lancashire communities.
The letter was sent from 38 councillors representing the Pendle, Burnley and Hyndburn districts.
Sir Keir has faced a backlash over the party's response to the Israeli military operation in Gaza, largely driven by a radio interview he gave during the Labour conference on 11th October.
Asked on LBC whether he thought a siege of the Gaza Srtrip was “appropriate” - involving “cutting off power [and] cutting off water” - Sir Keir said: “I think that Israel does have that right, it is an ongoing situation. Obviously, everything should be done within international law.”
The following week, the Labour leader told the BBC that he had been talking about Israel’s broader “right to self defence”, not a right to cut off essential supplies. “On the contrary,” he said.
The letter from Lancashire councillors tells Sir Keir that while his clarification was “a positive step and acknowledged the pain these words caused, it falls short of the community's expectations”.
It adds that Labour members and supporters have experienced “an unprecedented wave of negativity and verbal abuse” as a result of the initial comments.
The missive - one of whose signatories is Burnley Council leader Afrasaib Anwar - also goes on to demand that the UK government calls “for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the Israeli siege of Gaza”, along with opening of aid corridors into the Strip.
An air operation was mounted by Israel following the attack on the country by Hamas - which controls the Gaza Strip and is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK - on 7th October, in which more than 1,300 Israelis were killed. Since then, over 5,700 Palestinians in Gaza have died during the Israeli offensive in the territory.
Speaking to the LDRS, County Cllr Ali said that he understood Labour councillors in other parts of Lancashire, like Preston and Blackburn, would be writing similar letters to the one East Lancashire representatives had signed.
He added that he wanted to see Sir Keir strike a more oppositional tone to the UK government - and for Labour to play a leading role in pushing for a ceasefire.
“Every life counts, every life is equal - irrespective of [a person’s] faith or whether they have no faith.
“The pictures of the people who died in Israel and the people who are dying in Gaza are heartbreaking. We need to do everything in our power to stop it and work towards a peaceful two-state solution.
“Also, the Palestinians aren’t Hamas and Hamas is not the Palestinian people. Their homes, schools and hospitals are being destroyed by Israeli military might.
“These images are going to end up radicalising people across the world - and what we need to be doing is working towards a peaceful resolution to reduce the chance of escalation [of the conflict] into neighbouring countries,” said County Cllr Ali.
He told the LDRS that he was hopeful that the national party leadership would “listen to our concerns”.
The LDRS has approached the Labour Party in the North West for comment. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Sir Keir said that he would support the British government’s call for “specific pauses” in the military operation in order to get out of Gaza the more than 200 Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, while also allowing aid into the densely populated area.
The Lancashire letter - which also urges the United Nations and International Criminal Court to appoint independent arbitrators “to assess the validity of evidence of war crimes” - concludes by telling Sir Keir that the signatories “eagerly anticipate genuine policy adjustments in our discussions on this matter”.
“The points highlighted…mark the initial steps toward resolving the current situation within our communities. We kindly request you to consider these points in the sincere and concerned spirit in which they have been raised.
“Our communities require a robust Labour Party that not only reflects their perspectives but also takes proactive measures, even outside of government, to foster meaningful change,” the letter rounds off.
The LDRS offered Cllrs Ashraf and Iqbal the opportunity to comment further on their resignations.