Whilst it may not be so obvious, the Muslim vote is increasingly becoming an important issue in British politics. Although they only make up 3% of the British population, Muslims tend to be concentrated in certain areas, which means that the Muslim factor could determine the outcome of elections in several constituencies. Despite this reality, the Conservative party remains woeful in its wooing of the Muslim vote as well as expressing Islamophobic sentiment with Conservative councillors like Chris Joannides comparing Muslim women who wear the face veil to bin bags. However, it is not only the Tories who are finding it difficult to reach out to Muslim communities; Labour has in recent years found itself in a rather frosty relationship with a group whose loyalty it could have previously relied upon. Ed Milliband met the Muslim community earlier this year at the Islamic Cultural Centre situated at Regent’s Park in central London. This was the first such meeting to be held by the new Labour leadership and was well attended by numerous organisations representing the interests of the Muslim community. This well-overdue rapprochement between the Labour party and the Muslim community is much needed after the last few years where the relationship between them has come to be characterised by mistrust and disillusionment.
Muslims have traditionally supported Labour deemed to be the party most in tune with their needs, ‘Labour rhetoric over the last quarter century has been more positive when it comes to issues like immigration, integration and multiculturalism.’ Muslims voted in their droves in 1997 for the Labour party where it attracted ‘84% of the Bangladeshi vote and 80% of the Pakistani vote.’ But it was during the premiership of Tony Blair that the fracture between Muslims and the Labour party occurred. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are often touted as the main reasons, but the schism between the party and its supporters went much further than that. Muslims were equally appalled by the treatment of British citizens who found themselves caught in the legal black hole of the so-called ‘war on terror’, the intelligence forces collusion in torture and the effects of the Prevent programme at home – most notably measures like Schedule 7, which allowed the government to detain individuals for up to nine hours on suspicion of terrorism. In the post-7/7 period, Britain’s Muslim communities came under intense scrutiny and the government embarked on a programme of ‘manufactured consent’. The funding and promotion of certain groups to apparently counter ‘extremism’ within the Muslim community did little to advance the interests of Muslims. These were groups that often skewed the debate on Muslim-related issues, and despite having little legitimacy amongst British Muslims; they had the ear of the Labour government. The entire enterprise was counter-productive, Muslims who were suspicious of such groups felt further alienated.
Labour were duly punished in the 2010 general election with some Muslims opting to vote for the Liberal Democrats; the parties opposition to the Iraq war as well as their now infamous pledge to abolish tuition fees were major reasons for this swing in allegiance. However, if anything illustrates how dissatisfied Muslims have become with the Labour party, it is the 2012 Bradford West by-election where the Respect MP George Galloway received 56% of the votes. This came as a shock to all of the major parties that received a pitiful number of votes, but it was particularly a disaster for Labour who had enjoyed a majority in the constituency for decades. This wasn’t due merely to Galloway’s anti-war rhetoric as has been argued; the significance of this result was the fact that it was decided in large part by local issues. One commentator described a bleak city in which a ‘Westfield shopping centre never materialised, a project to restore the historic Odeon cinema is mired in controversy and the city centre is awash with pawn shops and pound shops. Added is the fact that the city now ranks 145th out of 155 in the education league tables and youth unemployment has tripled in three years.’ Labour, it was viewed, had done little for the people of Bradford West during their tenure.
The other significant thing was Labour’s failure to engage with Muslims at the grassroots. In the wake of the defeat, Labour’s NEC conducted a post-mortem to establish why the party had lost, finding that the party had ‘believed that a small group of British-Pakistani community leaders could deliver the election for Labour.’ The fact that the Labour candidate was a British-Pakistani with considerable support from community leaders mattered little in the end. Respect succeeded where Labour spectacularly failed, they engaged with a younger, more informed and ideological generation who saw themselves less as part of a wider Pakistani community and more with a wider British Muslim community. Similarly, Respect brought women into the fold, traditionally bypassed by Labour in favour of male community leaders; these women were crucial to the grassroots activism needed to bring victory to George Galloway.
Mainstream parties have become particularly astute in pursuing the female vote, yet it seems this does not extend to Muslim women. In a bid to illustrate to Labour that they are ready to talk politics, the Bradford Muslim women’s council invited Ed Milliband to a meeting to discuss a number of wide ranging concerns that included both matters of foreign policy as well as domestic issues. The women were keen to point out that if policymakers want to court the Muslim female electorate, ‘then it is crucial that they locate a path that leads straight to us.’ The example of Bradford and the rise in Muslim female activists illustrate that mainstream parties have to consider the female Muslim vote in their political calculations. Further, this scant engagement with Muslim women has perpetuated the myth that they are both voiceless and disinterested in politics, which in turn feeds into wider stereotypes about Muslims in general.
With the coalition looking increasingly fragile, and with Tory voters veering towards UKIP, Labour has a unique opportunity to reconstitute its relationship with the Muslim community in Britain. It is important that the Muslim community’s engagement with the Labour party be built on a positive and mutual understanding of shared values and concerns. For far too long, Labour’s political engagement with Muslims has centered upon questions of security and counter-terrorism that have unquestionably had an adverse effect. Just as other groups in British society, Muslims are equally concerned by the economy, health and education. The social problems prevalent in Muslim communities, in particular, have been largely ignored as they are all too often dealt with as extensions to counter-terrorism measures rather than being dealt with in their own right.
As the Bradford by-election illustrates, the social and religious landscape has changed. An older more traditional and ethnic group of Muslims have been displaced by a more politically aware generation of young conservative Muslims less attached to ethnicity who feel ignored by mainstream political parties. There is now the assertion of a religious, yet uniquely British, more engaged identity that crosses ethnic lines. The various policies that have specifically alienated and targeted Muslims have served merely to reinforce it. Thus when Labour speaks of ‘one nation’, many Muslims will be wondering what exactly that means for them. The Labour party clearly needs to address this precise question, with the onus on Muslims to actively engage with the process.