Bitter battle for Labour as independents target London MPs over Gaza

Ilford North MP Wes Streeting  (ES Composite)
Ilford North MP Wes Streeting (ES Composite)

Labour is facing a bitter battle in its London heartlands as a growing number of independent candidates seize on anger over its response to the Gaza crisis.

They have vowed to work together to unseat MPs who did not support a ceasefire vote in Parliament, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting’s Ilford North seat at the top of their target list.

British Palestinian Leanne Mohamad has been selected to stand for the Redbridge Community Action Group against the Labour frontbencher, who has been tipped as a future leadership candidate.

The independents hope that Mr Streeting’s relatively small majority (5,218) and a sizeable Muslim population in his constituency will work in their favour.

But critics argue the independent campaigns will only cause “more community divisions” and are fueling a wave of abusive protests against sitting MPs.

Ms Mohamad has appeared at pro-Palestine protests in recent weeks and made clear that she is standing on a “no ceasefire, no vote” ticket.

The 23-year-old has refused multiple interview requests from the Evening Standard. But her political allies argue that Labour will face challenges across the capital.

“We will never forget that the Government gave the green light to these war crimes,” she told a campaign rally in Whitechapel. “And never forget that the Opposition agreed, the Opposition who we thought once represented us but are no longer a viable option for any of us ... It’s time to bring the power back to the people, exactly where it belongs.”

Councillor Mehmood Mirza, the leader of Newham Independents, said his party had begun selecting candidates to stand against shadow foreign minister Lyn Brown in a new Stratford seat and Stephen Timms in East Ham.

Councillors Mehmood Mirza, the leader of Newham Independents, and Sophia Naqvi (Evening Standard)
Councillors Mehmood Mirza, the leader of Newham Independents, and Sophia Naqvi (Evening Standard)

Mr Mirza was previously a long-standing member of Labour and vice-chairman of the West Ham constituency party (CLP), but was suspended in 2020 after being accused of antisemitism. He denies the allegations.

Last year Mr Mirza won a local by-election to become the first Newham Independent councillor.

The party won a second town hall seat in a vote in Plaistow in November and councillor Zuber Gulamussen defected from Labour the same month over its stance on Gaza, making the group the official opposition in the borough.

Mr Mirza told the Standard: “Labour is not the same party that people used to rely on, to vote for. In east London the residents and the community feel like they have been taken for granted. They always vote for Labour, generation after generation … and obviously things are not getting better.

They’re getting worse.” He added that he will support other independents because “they are standing against the Labour Party”.

“Leanne Mohamad is from Palestine and she’s fought for the cause of Gaza and she’s been an activist for a long time and I will love to go and campaign for her when the time comes,” Mr Mirza added.

Labour has started polling Muslim voters amid concern that it has underestimated the rage towards the party over its stance on the conflict.

Mr Streeting told the Evening Standard: “We don’t take any voters for granted. There’s sometimes this narrative of London being a Labour city, but I won my seat from the Conservatives in 2015 with hard work and I’ve repaid that trust through hard work over the last eight and a half years.”

Mr Streeting also acknowledged why tensions are high, when Israel continues to bombard the besieged Palestinian territory resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. He added: “When people look at both a disproportionate number of innocent civilians who’ve been killed in Gaza, particularly children, and see the harrowing images of the bodies in Gaza, people are heartbroken and outraged at the scale of the losses.

“I’ll never deviate from my view that Israel has a right to defend itself and to get its hostages back. I think what we’ve seen though, in how Israel is conducting the war, is military action that is going far beyond self-defence... We need a political path out of this conflict.

“We need the killings to stop. And we need to send a clear and united message as an international community to Israel’s leaders, that there is no hope of a peaceful future without a two state solution and a state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.

“We need a political path out of this conflict that sees a sustainable ceasefire.”

Labour’s Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green and Bow is the target of independent Mohammed Akunjee, a lawyer who represented “IS bride” Shamima Begum’s family when the former local schoolgirl was stripped of her British citizenship.

He said he was moved to stand in the election when Ms Ali “remained silent” on a Gaza ceasefire.

In November, 56 Labour MPs backed a Scottish National Party motion in the Commons calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, and eight shadow ministers resigned.

Ms Ali, a shadow business minister, abstained.

Palestinian flags in the streets of Ilford (Bradley Page)
Palestinian flags in the streets of Ilford (Bradley Page)

“Her silence was a betrayal of your humanitarian sentiment and the people of Bethnal Green and Stepney are rightly angry,” Mr Akunjee said.

Ms Ali, who became the first British-Bengali MP in 2010, has a huge majority of more than 37,500. While she abstained on the ceasefire vote she did invite Tower Hamlets Labour councillors into parliament.

But Labour lost Tower Hamlets council to Lutfur Rahman and his party Aspire in 2022 and Ms Ali has seen large protests outside her constituency office in the area where over 40 per cent of the population are Muslim.

It was also the constituency where George Galloway galvanised anti-Iraq war sentiment to beat Labour at the 2005 general election.

The feeling among local party leaders is that they will successfully defend the constituencies, but the fight to do so will be far more vicious than it needed to be in a safe Labour seat.

One Labour councillor said: “[Mr Streeting and Ms Ali] will be okay. But it will be a bloody battle. These independent folks have no manifestos or plans other than ‘Free Gaza’ — British voters need more from their MPs. Galloway lost the last two elections when he stood on this ticket.”

A taste of the ruthless battle to come is already playing out 200 miles away in Greater Manchester, where Mr Galloway is again making a bid for Parliament in the Rochdale by-election.

Labour on Monday had to pull support from its candidate, Azhar Ali, after it was revealed that he had made anti-Israel comments and spouted conspiracy theories about the October 7 attack during a local party meeting. Mr Ali later apologised and retracted the comments.

But in the weeks he was campaigning for Labour he had been subject to a barrage of abuse, with a video of a group of voters in a restaurant berating him over the party’s stance on Gaza being widely shared online.

Recently deputy leader Angela Rayner was chased down by members of Tameside Palestinian Solidarity Movement who screamed “you have supported genocide” and “shame on you” at her through a megaphone.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves was also pursued by a protesters while out campaigning.

The public support for Gaza in parts of east London is clear, with Palestinian flags displayed in shops, homes and hoisted along main roads.

British Palestinian Leanne Mohamad is standing in Ilford North (X/Leanne Mohamad)
British Palestinian Leanne Mohamad is standing in Ilford North (X/Leanne Mohamad)

It prompted UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) to write to Redbridge and Tower Hamlets councils stating that they were breaching the law by failing to remove them.

Redbridge town hall said it would “continue” to take down the banners, which were on particularly prominent display in Cranbrook Road and The Drive — streets currently in the Ilford South constituency but which are moving to Mr Streeting’s North Ilford seat under boundary changes.

The banners are often put back up within 24 hours of being removed.

A senior Labour source said: “There was definitely a lot of anger among some at Keir after his initial response to Gaza, and the leadership have been in denial about the impact it’s had.

“Muslim members and voters felt let down and taken for granted. Not calling for a ceasefire made it worse and now there are a lot of minority voters out there who want to teach Labour a lesson. It means that campaigning is going to be a lot more brutal in what should be safe seats.”

Almost a third of residents in Redbridge are Muslim, according to the 2021 census, up from 23 per cent in 2011.

Ilford North also still has a small but significant Jewish population at 3.6 per cent — the 12th largest in Britain.

Tensions have been rising in the borough since Hamas’s October 7 terror attack on Israel, with both Jewish and Muslim institutions reporting death threats and intimidation.

The Redbridge Islamic Centre was condemned in October when an imam appeared to tell worshippers to “curse the Jews” during a sermon broadcast online, while the Jewish Chabad Centre in Ilford has reported receiving threats.

The Islamic Centre said the video had been removed and the matter was being investigated.

Chief Superintendent Stuart Bell, local policing commander for east London, said: “We have been clear that hate crime and threats targeting specific communities will not be tolerated by the Met.

“We are investigating two malicious communications that have been directed towards the [Chabad Centre] in recent months and we remain in contact with the head rabbi to respond to any further concerns.”

A Muslim school in Redbridge was sent a letter in December threatening to “kill everyone”.

Mr Streeting said the “grotesque threat” had left Muslim parents “fearing for the safety of their children”.

He added that the school’s experience was “by no means the only example of hatred, threats and abuse directed towards Muslim community organisations”.

The situation isn’t helped by the seeming disarray and infighting in Labour in parts of the capital.

Three London MPs elected in 2019 — Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Kate Osamor — are suspended over antisemitism allegations. A fourth, Enfield MP Bambos Charalambous, has been stripped of the whip amid an unspecified investigation into his conduct.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is being encouraged to stand as an independent in Islington North (AP)
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is being encouraged to stand as an independent in Islington North (AP)

Boundary changes mean two new seats are being created in the capital ahead of the general election — one in Newham and another in Croydon. Both can deemed safe Labour areas.

But East and West Ham Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have been suspended since 2021 meaning they cannot select a candidate in Stratford, and the Croydon East selection was postponed last year amid voter fraud allegations.

Ilford South MP Sam Tarry was ousted in favour of Redbridge council leader Jas Athwal last year, prompting the Left-winger to threaten legal action against his party.

The Poplar and Limehouse seat of Apsana Begum, the UK’s first hijab-wearing MP, has been triggered for re-selection. She blamed a campaign of targeted harassment, which she has linked to domestic abuse she alleged against her ex-husband, a former Labour councillor.

He has denied the abuse, but was forced out of the party after an investigation lasting more than two years. Ms Begum said she has “serious concerns” about the way she was treated by Labour.

Mr Corbyn, who has repeatedly called for a ceasefire, has strongly hinted that he will run in the Islington North constituency he has represented for four decades, proving another headache for the party as few have put themselves forward to take on the ex-Labour leader on home turf.

Newham independent councillor Sophia Naqvi said she would like to see Mr Corbyn lead an independent movement. “People used to see a red rosette and it was a ticked off [vote],” she told the Evening Standard. “Now [we think] is this party actually representing us?”

But others accused the independents of fuelling community divisions.

Mo Ahmed, a student from Ilford, said: “I’ve attended the ceasefire protests in [central] London and think more should be done to help people suffering in Gaza. But it’s offensive to suggest that all Muslims are going to vote the same way because of a conflict 3,000 miles away.

“We have mortgages, we use hospitals, things need to change in this country and I don’t think an independent candidate standing on one issue will generally be able to bring that.”

A Jewish London Labour campaigner said: “It’s a more hostile environment.

“Most of the antisemitism, antisemitic members were rooted out when Starmer took over the party.

“But I’m not looking forward to this election, especially in some parts of what you would consider safe Labour seats in London. It’s going to be hustings where people shout about genocide and protest about dead children.

“We want to focus on the issues that are impacting everyone in Britain like the cost of living and NHS waiting lists.”

Brent North MP Barry Gardiner, who supported calls for a ceasefire, told the Standard: “Gaza should not be something that anyone is trying to turn to party political advantage.

“The idea that people will vote based on one issue alone I think would be a difficult way to conduct democracy. What’s going on [in Gaza] is appalling and people should make their voices heard to their Members of Parliament. That is what a free democracy allows.”