Burnley council leader and 10 others quit Labour over Starmer’s Gaza position

Burnley’s council leader has left the Labour Party only days after urging Sir Keir Starmer to resign as leader over his stance on the Israel-Hamas war.

Afrasiab Anwar said it had been a “really difficult decision” to leave the Labour Party.

Mr Anwar and 10 other councillors have, according to a statement, jointly decided to leave the party – describing their memberships as “untenable” given the leadership’s refusal to demand a ceasefire in the Middle East.

The local politicians said Sir Keir had indicated he “does not value the voice of the grassroots of the party”, citing remarks the Opposition leader made following a speech on Friday in the North East.

Sir Keir, who has come under internal pressure for Labour to demand a cessation of hostilities, told reporters that his focus was on stopping the suffering in Gaza, not on the “individual positions” of party members.

The Labour Party has backed the UK Government’s stance of calling for a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian aid and medical treatments to reach Palestinians in Gaza.

But Mr Anwar said the position was “nonsensical” and did not capture the strength of feeling in his Lancashire town, along with communities elsewhere in Britain, about the war.

Mr Anwar last week issued a joint call, along with Asjad Mahmood – a Pendle Borough councillor, for Sir Keir to resign over his leadership on the issue.

Speaking to PA news agency on Sunday about his decision to quit the party, Mr Anwar said: “We just can’t stand by watching and being part of a party that is not speaking out, or at the very least calling for a ceasefire.

“Instead of talking of peace all of our world leaders, including the leader of the Labour Party, are talking about humanitarian pauses. It is just nonsensical.

“I just don’t think the message is getting through in terms of how our communities, right across the board, are feeling about this.”

The Burnley Council leader said the councillors had tried “everything we could by working within the party”.

In a statement shared with PA, the councillors said they had engaged with a host of senior Labour figures – including shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and deputy leader Angela Rayner – to express their concerns.

They said they had also written to Sir Keir, as well as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

But, in a joint statement, the councillors said: “Regrettably, after exhausting every available option, we have arrived at the conclusion that the current party stance on Palestine does not align with the values we hold dear.

“Consequently we have collectively decided to resign from the Labour Party with immediate effect, feeling that our place within the party is untenable given its present position.

“We cannot remain in a party that is not doing enough while innocent people are being killed in Gaza and Israel.”

Before the resignations, the Labour group held 22 out of 45 seats on Burnley Council. It remains the largest party after Sunday’s announcement.

The fighting in the Israel-Hamas war has continued into a fifth week.

Israel-Hamas conflict
Tens of thousands of people joined pro-Palestinian protests across the UK this weekend calling for a ceasefire (Victoria Jones/PA)

The violence was ignited by the Palestinian militant group’s bloody raids that killed 1,400 people and saw about 240 people taken hostage on October 7.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said more than 9,700 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory strikes by Israel.

The mass resignations of councillors in the North West come as the Labour leader battles to maintain discipline in the party on Gaza.

Several senior frontbenchers have revolted against Sir Keir’s stance of only calling for a humanitarian “pause”.

A Labour spokesman, responding to the latest resignations, said: “Labour fully understands calls for a ceasefire.

“Everybody wants to see an end to this cycle of violence and suffering, we need to see hostages released and aid getting to those most in need.

“But a ceasefire now will only freeze this conflict and would leave hostages in Gaza and Hamas with the infrastructure and capability to carry out the sort of attack we saw on October 7.

Israel Palestinians
Close to 10,000 people in Gaza have died, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

“International law must be followed at all times and innocent civilians must be protected.

“Labour is calling for humanitarian pauses in the fighting.

“This is the best and most realistic way to address the humanitarian emergency in Gaza and is a position shared by our major allies, in the US and the EU.”

Earlier on Sunday, shadow defence secretary John Healey acknowledged that Sir Keir’s remarks about the Israel-Hamas conflict had “caused hurt to many people”.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar earlier this week criticised Sir Keir for having “hurt” Muslim communities when he appeared to suggest in an interview with LBC that the Israeli government had the right to withhold water and power from citizens in Gaza.

Asked on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme if he accepted Mr Sarwar’s criticism, Mr Healey said: “I accept that it’s caused hurt to many people and Keir Starmer would do that as well.”