Battleground Yorkshire: Leeds' new student seat is vulnerable to a mid-term protest against Labour

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is in some ways a gateway drug for university politics and political engagement.

In terms of international affairs, there are few issues that are as long-running, passionately argued and littered with atrocities as this dispute in the Middle East.

For the millions of young people now at the UK’s universities, it is now once again at the forefront of their minds, and many of them do not think the Labour Party, their natural home, is going far enough in its condemnation of Israel.

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In Leeds, this poses a problem for Sir Keir Starmer’s party if it can’t convince them that they are doing enough, but luckily has a candidate who is free of shadow cabinet responsibilities.


“I would say, probably in the country, it's one of the constituencies where people are most clued up and care about international issues,” says Alex Sobel, the former shadow minister who is running to be the seat’s new MP.

“I'm in a really unique situation in Parliament. My parents came to this constituency from Israel, my father was a peace activist in Israel.

“He was on the Israeli left, in one of the first groups to call for a two state solution for a Palestinian state, and that's been my enduring view.

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“I called for a ceasefire and voted for one way back in November.

“The only way for hostages to get released is through negotiation, and through a peaceful settlement. And the one point where we had a ceasefire, although it was temporary, is that that's the only time that hostages were released, military action isn't releasing those hostages.”

Labour’s position has changed to this in recent months, and is now more akin to what young activists have been calling for. The current point of difference is over arms sales to Israel, with many calling for an un-caveated immediate ban, while Labour believes that it is contingent on the Government having the legal advice proving it is necessary.

“I think there is still some frustration. You can see that there's continued protests on campus about what's happening in Israel and Gaza,” says Ruby Hester, the co-chair of Leeds Labour Society and now the national chair of Labour students.

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“We've all felt horrified watching it unfold. And I think there is a sense of powerlessness amongst people because the government isn't really listening to certain calls.

“I think some of the people that feel frustrated with Labour are the same people who have generally been drifting from the party since 2020,” she added.

Young people, more than other generations, often vote on single issues, and when it comes to Israel-Palestine, other parties such as the Green Party have a more student-aligned view.

Though young people are on Labour’s side in opposition, the same may not be true one of two terms into a Labour majority when rallying against the Government takes a turn from having a go against the Tories.

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“Although it’s a different seat, Leeds North West was Conservative, before going Labour in 1997, in 2005 went Lib Dem and then I won it in 2017, and I lived in the seat for a lot of that period,” says Mr Sobel.

“The wave to the Lib Dems at that point was because of the Iraq War and tuition fees.

“Things you do in Government can affect young people, without a doubt. The challenge for me is, even though my views have been consistent on those two issues for a very long time since I’ve been a student, people may not recognise that in the seat.

“I’d quite like to have the problem of trying to predict what would happen eight years into a Labour government, as I’ve not experienced that as an MP, it’s a good problem to have.

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“What I’m hoping when it comes to individual things is that we don’t have an Iraq War scenario.

“When you’re in power, you’re not going to please each individual wholly, but you need to have enough, particularly for progressive voters, which is what I’d describe as my seat, to stick with you and see you’re making a difference.”

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