The Irish Times view on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in UK politics: deep-seated problems of racism and xenophobia

Despite Keir Starmer’s apparently inexorable progress towards victory, contemporary multi-cultural Britain continues to be roiled by questions of identity and prejudice

Thursday’s byelection in the northern English constituency of Rochdale is shaping up to be one of the oddest in recent memory. Labour won the seat at the last general election in 2019, but the party has no official candidate this time around, although two former Labour MPs are running for other parties.

Following the death of veteran Labour MP Tony Lloyd, the party chose local councillor Azhar Ali as its candidate. It withdrew its support two weeks ago after a recording emerged of Ali claiming Israel had deliberately permitted the Hamas attack of October 7th in order to justify its own assault on Gaza. Ali remains on the ballot, but if elected will sit as an independent. Meanwhile, former Labour left-wing maverick George Galloway is running on a pro-Palestinian ticket in a constituency where 30 per cent of voters are Muslim. Another former Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, is standing for Reform UK, which has been challenging the Conservatives from the right in recent elections.

The confusing picture – and uncertain outcome – offer an insight into how, despite Keir Starmer’s apparently inexorable progress towards victory at the next general election, contemporary multi-cultural Britain continues to be roiled by questions of identity and prejudice. Starmer may have successfully avoided a damaging revolt by members of his parliamentary party in a Commons vote last week on Gaza, but dissatisfaction remains widespread within Labour over his refusal to take a harder line on Israel’s military assault. That dispute often shades into tensions over his project of stamping out the anti-Semitism which he believes became endemic in the party during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour’s travails are paralleled by similar turmoil in the Conservatives over Islamophobia following the suspension of the party’s former deputy chairman, Lee Anderson. Anderson (yet another former Labour member) was suspended at the weekend by party leader Rishi Sunak from sitting as a Conservative MP after saying that Islamists had “got control” of London mayor Sadiq Khan, Britain’s most high-profile Muslim politician. Anderson says he has not ruled out defecting to Reform UK.


Since the suspension, Sunak and other Conservatives have accepted that Anderson’s comments were wrong, but have avoided describing them as racist or Islamophobic. This may be because there is significant support within the party for Anderson’s repugnant remarks but also because accepting the tag of Islamophobia exposes them to similar charges against other recent statements by Conservatives, including former home secretary Suella Braverman.

It is clear that both party leaders face deep-seated problems of racism and xenophobia. But Starmer appears to be addressing his. The same, sadly, does not seem to be true of Sunak.