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Anger over the Gaza war fuels independent candidates in U.K. election

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Gaza war is playing out in domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic. President Biden has struggled to explain his support for Israel to voters who are horrified by the violence in Gaza, and something similar is happening in Britain ahead of an election there later this week. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from East London.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

WES STREETING: It's a reminder of the power of politics to make a real difference.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: That's a political ad for Wes Streeting, a rising star in the U.K.'s center-left Labour Party, which is forecast to win power away from the conservatives in a July 4 election. Despite his party's lead in the polls, Streeting is facing an unexpectedly close race for his own parliamentary seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Streeting.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Out.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Streeting.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Out.

FRAYER: That's the sound of protests outside his office back in November, weeks after Hamas attacked Israel. When Israel responded with attacks on Gaza, Streeting's Labour Party initially refused to call for restraint. And Streeting says he got death threats. Here's what Labour leader Keir Starmer told local TV around that same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEIR STARMER: Hamas bears responsibility. A siege is appropriate, cutting off power, cutting off water. I think that Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation.

FRAYER: Starmer has since backed off those comments and called for an immediate cease-fire. But that interview is still going viral, and it's making it difficult for candidates like Streeting, who represents a working-class multicultural district with a large Muslim population, some of whom are now backing an independent candidate instead.

LEANNE MOHAMAD: My father was born a Palestinian refugee in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

FRAYER: Leanne Mohamad is a 23-year-old lawyer and human rights activist. She grew up in Streeting's district and is now running against him. Her campaign flyers say - end the genocide - and below that - protect the National Health Service, or NHS.

MOHAMAD: I mean, I come to speak to people about the NHS, and they're speaking to me about Gaza. They're saying, you know, our HSAs, we have functioning hospitals, but in Gaza, look what's happening, our hospitals are being bombed. So speak to me about Gaza. Don't speak to me about NHS. That's what people are telling me on the door. And these are people from non-Muslim backgrounds. So it's affecting people from all walks of life.

FRAYER: Mohamad is part of a surge of independents throwing their hats in the ring this election. Some of them have Palestinian flags on their campaign posters.

MOHAMAD: Andrew Feinstein in Holborn & St Pancras, and Emma Dent Coad in Kensington, Pamela Fitzpatrick in Harrow.

FRAYER: They're targeting younger voters and minorities, people who traditionally vote Labour. One recent poll shows British Muslim support for Labour has halved in recent years. After losing Muslim votes in municipal elections in May, a Labour Party spokesperson, Ellie Reeves, told the BBC...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLIE REEVES: We know that we've got a great deal of work to do to rebuild trust with Muslim communities and, of course, all those that are very concerned.

FRAYER: Labour is pouring campaign resources into areas it used to consider its strongholds. It's also promised, if elected, to recognize a Palestinian state, albeit within an ambiguous time frame.

NESRINE MALIK: There's huge parallels between what's happening in the U.S. and what's happening in the U.K.

FRAYER: Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik says this reminds her of President Biden's struggle to win over Arab Americans in Michigan, for example. In both countries, voters for whom Gaza is a top issue are vowing to register that at the polls.

MALIK: I have been struck by how diverse it is, not just along ethnic lines but generational lines, as well.

FRAYER: As with pro-Palestinian campus protests in America. For Biden, supporting Israel has long been a personal conviction. For Starmer, it may be more about his party, which was dogged by antisemitism accusations in the past, says Gabriel Pogrund, Whitehall editor at The Sunday Times.

GABRIEL POGRUND: Part of it was wanting to be seen to defend Israel, but also, he wanted to be seen to be a government in waiting, and all British prime ministers know that whatever your foreign policy is, it is ultimately subordinate to what the United States does. There was no point in Keir Starmer improvising a position if the West at large and the U.S., in particular, wasn't ready to go there yet.

FRAYER: Starmer is focused on looking like a prime minister, and polls suggest he will be one after July 4. Now, British Muslims are not a monolith. One of the most prominent ones is London Mayor Sadiq Khan. He too is a member of the Labour Party. In an interview with NPR this spring, he urged voters not to focus on just one issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SADIQ KHAN: The choice is a straight choice. Do you want a conservative prime minister still to be leading our country after 14 years? Or do you want a fresh start with Keir Starmer? And the same goes in America.

FRAYER: Khan's Labour Party is still forecast to win with a big majority. Independent candidates like Leanne Mohamad aren't likely to change that, but they may cause some uncomfortable upsets on election day.

MOHAMAD: Remember my name, Leanne Mohamad. Tag me on Instagram - I'm on socials as well.

FRAYER: And they've already made their mark on the political landscape here. Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Ilford, East London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.