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How Gaza became an election issue in Oldham

After a dramatic election night, Labour lost its overall majority in Oldham Council for the first time in 13 years.

The group saw seven seats go to independent candidates. 

Though they gained two seats in Hollinwood and Failsworth East, they were left with just 26 councillors when the final results were announced at 6am. The results meant they were far below the 31 councillors needed to maintain majority control of the council. 

Though predictions about the outcome circulated online for days before the polling signs went up, Labour’s own data failed to predict just how big the losses would be. And many have suggested that the UK Labour leader’s stance on Gaza could be to blame – especially in wards such as St Mary’s, Alexandra and Coldhurst where there are large Asian and Muslim populations. 

A number of independent candidates in these areas ran on "boycott Labour" campaigns, while others used the colours of the Palestinian flag on their leaflets to show their support. 

But reacting to the results this morning, council leader Arooj Shah argued the issue is not that simple. She claimed that "bad actors" in Oldham – and British politics – were "exploiting" the issue to sow division amidst residents who already feel disenfranchised by the cost of living crisis and cuts to local spending. 

“I think what we have seen tonight is an indication that people feel like mainstream politics – mainstream parties – aren’t for them,” she told the LDRS. “We saw today that people were really turned off by democracy.” 

In Oldham, she thinks this is because of a "toxic and divisive" culture in local politics. 

“Our politics has been torn apart by extremism,” she claimed. “You have disinformation, misinformation, smear campaigns and that puts people off standing.” 

She argued this is scaring off people "who really care" from getting involved with local politics “because they’re worried about the abuse they’ll get”.

Instead, "self-interested" and "tactical" candidates were using Palestine as a wedge issue – even though it had "nothing to do with local politics", according to one Labour source.

Shah agreed, saying: “When you look at the situation in Palestine, which has been horrific, people have clearly voiced concerns. We called for a ceasefire with Andy Burnham and the other leaders across Greater Manchester very early on when this tragedy began. People want an outlet to voice their concerns and that’s legitimate. 

“But what you also see is bad actors on the fringes of British politics that use and exploit those matters and we definitely saw that in Oldham. The matter was definitely manipulated and exploited [in this election].”

A number of council sources suggested that group chats had been circulating on WhatsApp and Telegram with the aim of "shoring up" support for independents on the basis that they would provide a voice for Palestinians. 

Cllr Shah said: “In the last weeks, I’ve been continuously harassed and baraged online about why we’re not calling for a ceasefire – and we did! But at the end of the day we are local councillors. We’re trying to run a local council. Our concern is with local services. 

“Our animosity should be towards the government who have made that really difficult for us over this time after years of cuts.” 

But she acknowledged that losing the majority in Oldham might send a message to the Labour leader. 

“The message to higher ups in the Labour party is that clearly people care deeply about Palestine,” she said. “But we so desperately need a Labour government to give Oldham the break that it needs.”

The exact nature of the council leadership in future is uncertain. Labour is still the biggest political group in the council and Cllr Shah says talks will take place in the next few days to establish exactly what the new administration will look like. 

But to Shah, it’s clear that some wounds need to be healed within Oldham politics. She said: “My message to all the opposition groups in Oldham is that now it’s about coming together and putting the people of Oldham first.”

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