'I know we won't win - but I have to vote with my conscience'

It’s been less than two months since Labour lost overall control of Oldham council.

The shift made national headlines for bucking the national trend for Labour wins. And most analysts pointed to the local support for Gaza and disappointment in Labour’s response to the Israel-Palestine conflict as its root cause.

With the whole country heading to the polls tomorrow for the general election, there is a question hanging over the Greater Manchester borough: will Oldham buck the trend again?

READ MORE: At the University of Manchester, one issue is unavoidable as the election looms

“It’s about time people open their eyes rather than just blindly putting a tick where the red rose is,” said Mohammed Alyas.

The ex-councillor for Medlock Vale spoke to the M.E.N. over the phone. Once a long-time Labour member, he quit the party last year over Keir Starmer’s comments in the first weeks of Israel’s retaliation against the Hamas’ terror attacks, supporting the decision to cut off water supplies to civilians as a “right to defend herself”.

A weekly protest held outside the Peace Gardens in Oldham.
The plight of civilians in Gaza is a 'local issue' for some Oldham voters -Credit:M.E.N.

Labour have long been dominant in Oldham 's constituencies. Both Oldham West and Royton (renamed Oldham West, Chadderton and Royton) and Oldham East and Saddleworth have been red since their creation in the 90s, frequently with comfortable majorities.

But support for the party has waned in the borough in recent months, especially among Oldham’s large Muslim community. Following the Hamas terror attacks on October 7, 2023, Labour was seen as ‘slow’ to respond to the plight of civilians in Gaza, where the death toll has now reached almost 40,000 people.

“The Labour party’s stance was totally wrong,” Alyas said. The 55-year-old postmaster is now supporting and campaigning for a pro-Palestine candidate in Oldham West. And he says he’s been ‘surprised’ by the support for independents beyond the Muslim community.

“Initially I was thinking we need to reduce Labour’s majority so they begin to value the Muslim vote a bit more. But now I’m optimistic we’ll win.”

A campaign launch by Workers Party candidate Shanaz Saddique was visited by around 200 people last month.
A campaign launch by Workers Party candidate Shanaz Saddique was visited by around 200 people last month -Credit:M.E.N.

Oldham’s constituencies have several candidates campaigning specifically on Gaza. Oldham East has Workers Party candidate Shanaz Saddique, while Oldham West sees Zaffar Iqbal (endorsed by the Workers Party) and independent Tony Wilson on the ballot sheet.

The Greens and Lib Dems candidates are also widely perceived as having a more outspoken stance against the violence of the conflict.

Labour has pledged to recognise Palestine as an independent state in its manifesto and previously voted on a ceasefire motion.

But a spokesperson for Muslim Voice, an organisation who advise on strategic voting for the Muslim community, said: “The recent local election results in Oldham and across areas with dense Muslim populations show how important Gaza will be to the upcoming election with Muslims across the country having lost confidence in the Labour Party due to the leadership's position on Gaza and their support for Israel as they committed war crimes.”

Israel denies war crimes, saying the destruction of Hamas is essential to its security, and that their targets in the group - which has governed Gaza since 2007 but is proscribed in the UK as a terrorist organisation - have embedded themselves in civilian areas.

Oldham used to be home to Elbit, who produced arms for Israel. In 2021, there were weekly protests outside the factory until it closed down.
A protest in 2021 at the Elbit Weapons Factory in Oldham. Elbit produced arms for Israel and there were weekly protests outside its premises on Greenacres Road until they closed in 2022 -Credit:Manchester Evening News

Muslim Voice are backing Zaffar Iqbal and Shanaz Saddique and claim they ‘have the most support within the local community’ at present.

But for most people, the vote is about ‘voting with the heart’ rather than tactical voting.

“I know we won’t win,” Hasan, who wants to vote Green, told the M.E.N.. “But I can’t in good conscience vote someone into power who only a few months ago said it was ok to starve people.”

Hasan was standing with a group of fifteen in Oldham’s Peace Garden when the M.E.N. approached him. Palestinian flags trailed over the tops of people’s heads, cars beeped their horns in support as they drove by and, in the background, a woman with a megaphone chanted “No Ceasefire, no vote”.

Protestors in Oldham don't want to back Labour - but their choice of candidates is a mixed picture.
The protest is just one sign of widespread support for the Palestinian cause across the borough - and dissatisfaction with Labour's stance -Credit:M.E.N.

“I have extended family living in Palestine,” Hasan said. “I’m also a Muslim man. Those things do make Gaza more significant to me. But the real reason I feel strongly is because I’m a human being.

“Voting for Labour might be the lesser of two evils - but that’s an evil nonetheless.”

The protest assembles every Wednesday and is just one sign of the widespread support for Gaza in the borough - alongside ubiquitous ‘Free Palestine’ graffiti, flags in shop windows and lively social media campaigns.

Susan Piper, another protestor, said she also wouldn’t be voting Labour this year, despite being a life-long supporter. The local teacher said she’d visited Gaza before the attacks as part of a trade union trip and been introduced to a 16-year-old boy while there.

“Three weeks ago he was killed in Israeli airstrikes alongside two cousins,” she told the M.E.N. “I was deeply upset. And that's just one story.

"I can't vote for someone who isn't standing for an unconditional ceasefire."

Elsewhere in the borough, the sentiment is similar.

Rama Touli, 29, was visiting her family in Glodwick from Germany. Though she can’t vote in the UK, she said her family would be choosing ‘the one who stands for human rights’.

“It’s the responsibility of world powers to stand up to genocide and ethnic cleansing. I know they say Israel was offended by Hamas - but I don’t think the people in the hospitals in Gaza were responsible for what happened.

“Right now it seems like the civilians of countries are more willing to stand up for humanity than those sat in government.”

Israel says it is acting in self-defence, and that it has taken steps to minimise civilian loss of life throughout.

Galloway, who is standing in Rochdale, held a rally in Oldham in May.
Susan Piper claims she met Mouwad Albaba last year before he was tragically killed

And one man supporting Shanaz Saddique, who asked not to be named, said: “There’s a lot of social problems in Oldham and we need an MP who will address that too. But right now we don’t feel like we’re being listened to by our Labour MPs and Labour council.

“Gaza is a personal issue for people in Oldham - it's a local issue. We want to be listened to and we need someone in parliament who will actually represent our beliefs."

A number of people the M.E.N. spoke to also claim they were ‘torn’ between their long-standing support for Labour and smaller parties or independents.

"It's a hard choice," Caroline, a member of Oldham Peace and Justice, said. "It took Labour a long time to call for a ceasefire. I haven't quite decided yet."

With the vote split across a number of opposing candidates and rising support for other parties including the Lib Dems, Reform UK and the Greens, it’s possible Labour will still secure a comfortable majority in both constituencies, despite the drop in support.

A Labour spokesperson said: “Whilst there is a strength of feeling over the conflict in the Middle East, the message we are hearing on the ground is that people in Oldham will be voting for Change, and voting for a new government with Keir Starmer as Prime Minister.

“Our MPs have been excellent voices for the people of Oldham in parliament, and with a new government, that voice will only strengthen.”