Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2884

Ex-Labour leader in Walsall says ‘Leave party. It has let you down’

Israel’s war on Palestine, and Labour’s support for it, continues to haunt the party. Charlie Kimber talks to one councillor who’s had enough
Issue 2884
Two Muslim women protesting on Saturday 25 November in central London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

There’s widespread rage at Labour’s backing of Israeli war crimes (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Until 16 November Aftab Nawaz was the leader of the Labour group on Walsall Council in the West Midlands. Now he’s preparing for a “social justice” challenge to Labour at forthcoming elections, including the general election. And he is talking to others across Britain about a wider electoral effort.
 
The trigger issue was Keir Starmer’s refusal to call for a ­ceasefire in Gaza. But that focused a deeper ­disillusion. He says he concluded that the Labour Party “was about management rather than trying to improve people’s lives”.
 
Aftab says it was a “wrench” to leave Labour after being a member for more than two decades. He says, “I did a lot of campaigning and a lot of work. And I stood as a paper candidate on several occasions—to keep the red flag flying, as we used to say.”
 
“And then I was elected as a ­councillor in 2014, and the ­councillors’ group chose me as the leader in 2019. But in the end, I got to a stage where I felt quite voiceless.
 
“I felt that even though we were speaking up for Palestine in our positions as leaders of Labour groups, the party itself as an institution, not just the leadership, was not interested in our views.
 
“We were just there to ensure that parliamentary elections were won. Since I and others became Muslim leaders of the Labour group in Walsall, we’ve had absolutely no support from the higher levels.
 
“It felt at times that the regional office was working against us. Slowly and incrementally, we found that the party was getting out of touch with people like us. And more importantly from the ­communities we represent. 
 
“And that’s not just about Muslims, it’s wider than that—grassroots communities where people are living their lives in a very difficult time.”
 
Then came Gaza, and Starmer’s backing for Israeli murder. “We’re not naive,” says Aftab. “We know if Keir Starmer got up and said he backed a ceasefire, it wouldn’t immediately change the situation.
 
“But it’s about moral courage and a reason to be in the Labour Party. If the leadership of the party can’t understand how big an issue this is to those communities who have been loyal to the Labour Party over many, many years, then they’ve lost their right to have us support them and vote for them.”
 
Aftab emphasises that in the past Labour might have been wrong but there was a chance for the left and others to be part of a genuine debate and have their say.
 But that’s gone now. “There are still a lot of people within the Labour Party who have a huge amount of sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause,” he said. The difficulty many of them face is that they feel scared—terrified actually—of bringing up the issue and being accused of antisemitism.”
 
Labour is a toxic party for Muslims and an unwelcoming party for anyone who has a different opinion to the leadership. Aftab has now decided it’s not possible to change Labour for the better. “All the parties, and Labour in particular, have left their roots behind,” he said.
 
“MPs used to come from people who had done normal working class jobs. Now you have people whose parents are politicians or top media people or in thinktanks and the higher levels of universities.
 
“They went to private schools then they were employed with MPs as their first jobs because their parents are involved in that business. They have no idea what our lives are like, the struggles that many of us face. There are some good ones. But not many.
 
“My father was an immigrant who worked in metal-bashing industries. I went to a comprehensive school and then worked for chemical firms before going into the council.”
 
Aftab adds that many people are “absolutely supportive” about his decision to leave Labour. “We’ve had mosques get in touch, and individuals ringing us up—people on the left as well as Muslims.
 
“People are excited. But I’m ­disappointed and a bit upset by the attitude of former colleagues in Labour who have just cut us off. I thought they were friends and what we find is that the only interest they had in this was that we were winning elections.
 
“They were happy with that. We were OK then. We’re looking at standing as independents in the local elections next year. We will give the opportunity to the people who are enraged at the moment over Gaza and other things to have their say. I hope people will be courageous enough to take the opportunity and leave behind those parties that have let them down.”
 
Aftab is also looking to the ­general election, expected within 12 months. “We’ve been talking to many people,” he says. “We’ve had many approaches as well from, political parties.
 
“We’re also having conversations on a national level with people of a similar background who left the party and want to put forward international solidarity with causes such as Palestine.”
 

Leave Labour but prioritise struggle
The some 60 councillors who have resigned from Labour stand in stark contrast to the Labour left figures who have stayed.
 
Some of these MPs, who voted for a ceasefire in the Commons on 15 November, have spoken at the great marches for Palestine. But none have skewered Keir Starmer, or called for anything more than internal pressure on him.
 
The crucial arena for struggle is the movement on the streets and in workplaces, not elections. The bigger and stronger that movement, the easier it will be for electoral alternatives to be possible—and for them to be more than a Labour party mark two.
 
The cowardice of the Labour left MPs, and their refusal to confront Starmer directly, act as a shield for his pro-Israel policies. They prioritise their positions rather than developing the revolt across the whole of politics over Palestine.

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