Jonathon Shafi interviews Amna Abdullatif, the first Arab Muslim woman elected to Manchester city council, who has resigned from the Labour Party over Gaza.
Jonathon Shafi: Thank you for taking the time to speak to me, Amna. I know how busy you must be. A lot has been said about your resignation. But I want to start by asking about you. How did you get involved in politics in the first place?
Amna Abdullatif: So I came into party politics about 10 years ago. And I actually got into it because the deputy leader of the council at the time asked me to join the Labour Party after challenging him on something that he said about Islamophobia. It wasn’t a big issue, I just felt like things were a bit shallow in terms of understanding the lived experience of Muslims in the city. He appreciated the challenge and told me that they needed more people like that in the Labour Party to raise these kinds of issues, and so I ended up joining because of him. He became my mentor through my time in the Labour Party, when I resigned his voice was in my head.
I became a councillor in 2019, making me the first visibly Muslim woman, and the first woman of Arab heritage, to stand at Manchester City Council. Predominately I’ve focused on questions around youth justice, issues related to violence against women and girls, and taking up campaigns around equality. Elsewhere, I’ve worked in the charity sector, I’m a community psychologist, and I work very closely with local people to understand the issues that they have and try to empower and support them to try and deal with the things that are affecting them. I believe that people know the answers to the problems they are dealing with. They just need the support to guide them on their way.
I’ve only just been re-elected in May. So I’ve got a decent chunk of time left of my term, and I will be working closely with my ward colleagues, some of whom are Labour councillors. We have a very good way of working and supporting our local community. And that’s the main priority for me.
JS: What kind of response have you had since you resigned?
AA: It’s come from really very different places, I’ve had lots of support, thankfully. Of course, there have also been some very negative and nasty things that too, which was expected. I honestly didn’t think it would make as much of a splash as it has done. You know, for me, it just felt like the moral and right thing to do, because I didn’t want to feel complicit in the Labour Party’s current messaging around Gaza. Just seeing the horror there, meant it was the only option to take. The attention has been overwhelming and I’m thankful that a lot of it has been positive, particularly from local residents, many of whom have contacted me to tell me that they understand and that they will continue to support me.
Solidarity has come from lots of people from within the Labour Party, many of whom I have campaigned with and worked with on all kinds of issues. I’ve had support from the local Labour Party. The leader of the council and the whip understand my position on why I’ve done this. Obviously, they didn’t want me to leave, but I appreciate the support they’ve been able to give me and their understanding. There have also been lots of random people, loads of nice emails from all over the country – and many Labour activists, some of whom have also left the party. So it’s been it’s been an interesting, interesting mix of of responses.
JS: So much has been said about the line of the Labour leadership. Most of it is political analysis, which is important. But I also want to ask how comments by the likes of Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer in response to the total siege and collective punishment of Gaza made you feel personally?
AA: In all honesty, I spent days unable to sleep after those comments that I saw from Kier Starmer, and then the line on the siege being reiterated by people like Emily Thornbury. It was horrendous. And to me, it felt like almost like an attack on many of the Muslim members. But this isn’t just about Muslim members. Many non-Muslimhere colleagues who have no strong affiliation to Palestine, felt like that this was a really important issue around justice and fairness. They, like me, and, felt that the Labour Party had become too compromised.
It just felt absolutely horrendous. Speaking with others, we felt overwhelmed by the handling of events, and really down. More than that moral feeling, I think for many of us we felt we couldn’t be complicit. We couldn’t imagine being able to go out in my local community and into a general election and ask people to vote for this leadership. I think if he had, at least, apologised and retracted his comments, this may have been resolved. But the fact that none of that happens. Not only that, we were then silenced inside the Labour Party and told not to go to demonstrations or to show we supported the Palestinian cause in any way. Internally, people are just scared. I tried to talk to people in an attempt to figure out some way forward within the party. But nobody wants to talk. Everyone is terrified of saying anything about this conflict. But how can you be silent when thousands of people are being murdered in the Gaza Strip an open-air prison that is being bombarded daily in the worst offensive we have ever seen?
The language used about Palestinians has been dehumanising. You’ve had Israeli officials essentially say they want to turn Gaza into rubble. And that seems okay: we don’t condemn that. We don’t we don’t say a word against that. It’s just unconscionable and I can under no circumstances support that politically. We could be at that stage where people are calling for peace. But no one in the leadership of the party is calling for a de-escalation. No one is calling for a ceasefire. The Prime Minister now queues up some humanitarian lines. But not an end to the bloodshed. There just doesn’t seem to be anything on that kind of grounds. The US vetoed the UN resolution on the matter. The UK, in cowardly fashion, abstained on calls for a humanitarian pause.
Just imagine how that must feel to many Palestinians in this country and those Palestinians who are stuck in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. To feel that the world has kind of left them to die.
JS: We’ve seen this enormous and global movement emerge. Within that there will be all kinds of opinions on other issues. But people have come together to demand a ceasefire, to end the siege of Gaza and for justice for Palestine. What are your impressions of this development?
AA: I think lots of people obviously see the horror of what’s going on and understand they have to speak out. That their voice holds weight and the mass of voices holds massive weight. We’ve already seen shifts in the way language is being used by politicians. We have to keep going. It obviously doesn’t go far enough. But it’s shifting. And I believe public opinion is on our side.
The more of us that do take a stand, the more impact we can make. The movement that is building globally is so important. Because otherwise, we are witnessing a genocide happening before our eyes without taking action. And that can’t be acceptable for any human being. To be sat there feeling like we can’t do anything about it. So I hope that more people do speak up in whatever way that they can. That they get organised, get talking and hold our leaders to account. We need to stop this war and the intolerable scenes from Gaza simply must halt.