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Labour loses Oxford City Council majority after nine resignations

Labour have lost their majority on Oxford City Council as a result of resignations over Keir Starmer’s refusal to condemn Israeli policy in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. A new Independent Group in the Council has since been formed by two of the resigned councillors. 

Saturday saw six councillors join Shaista Aziz and Dr Amar Latif, who had resigned last Friday, in giving up the Labour whip to sit as independents. These eight were joined this Thursday by Councillor Barbara Coyne – although she informed Council Leader, Susan Brown, that “she does not wish to join any other groups on Oxford City Council an [sic] intends to vote with the Labour Group.”

Labour woes were further deepened on Thursday, when the first two councillors to resign, Dr Amar Latif and Shaista Aziz, announced the formation of a new Independent Group in the council. Aziz said that: “Overwhelmingly working-class people and communities feel that they have not been consulted properly and their needs and the reality of their lives have not been factored into the creation of these policies.” Latif, meanwhile, told the Oxford Mail: “We’re trying to change the direction of the ruling of the city council.”

In order to pass legislation, Labour councillors will now be reliant on receiving votes from any of the nine Liberal Democrats, six Greens, or nine independents also part of the council. All the vacated positions will be up for election in either 2024 or 2026. It marks the first time since 2010 that the Labour group has lacked a majority on the Council.

In a statement, the six councillors who resigned on Saturday, said: “At a time when it’s been crucial to call for an immediate ceasefire and a de-escalation, and to insist Israel abides by international law, Keir Starmer and the shadow Foreign Secretary have instead endorsed collective punishment, blockade, siege and mass civilian casualties.

“As Starmer has said, ‘Israel has that right’ to continue deadly attacks on Gazans. This is complicity in war crimes.” They continued by stating: “In a choice between serving our parties or justice, we have chosen justice.” 

Councillor Nala-Hartley, one of the six councillors who resigned, also spoke at a pro-Palestine protest on Tuesday. 

The accusations around Starmer refer to the Labour Leader’s appearance on LBC Radio, where he said that: “Israel has the right to do everything it can to get those hostages back safe and sound. Hamas bears responsibility.”

He later backtracked on these comments, stating: “I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines. On the contrary. For over a week now, I have been leading the charge calling for that humanitarian aid to come in.”

Starmer’s initial comments attracted criticism from the Labour Muslim Network last week. In an open letter published on X, the Network urged Starmer to “retract your comments, apologise to Palestinians, and meet urgently with Palestinian organisations in the UK, Labour Muslim Network and the Muslim Council of Britain.”

The Labour leader of Oxford City Council, Susan Brown, responded to these resignations by stating: “While I am disappointed that they have chosen to do this, local residents can be assured that the Oxford Labour administration on the council will continue to deliver for residents as we have done since our election.

“Keir Starmer reiterated today that Israel has the right to defend itself, but must act in accordance with international law.”

The Liberal Democrat group leader, Chris Smowton, also responded, saying: “Labour has lost its majority on Oxford City Council. If they can’t get a grip, then the Liberal Democrats stand ready to get on with the job of governing in the best interests of our city.”

The resignations and the creation of the new independent group will have implications both local, reducing the ease with which the Labour group can pass legislation, and national, deepening divisions within the Labour Party and increasing the pressure on Starmer to endorse calls for a ceasefire. 

A letter to Sir Keir, signed by 39 academics, including experts in international law, argued that Starmer’s comments amounted to a tacit approval of collective punishment, a war crime.

Starmer and Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner met Muslim MPs and peers after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, discussing the party’s position on Israel and Palestine – although no change in policy has been announced.

Oxford Labour Club have been approached for comment.

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