With GE2017 polling day just a few days away you might be forgiven to think it can’t come any sooner. There’s been a fair share of the usual cries of ‘voting is haram’ which as nefarious as they are (listen to sheikh Muhammad Nizami), seem to continue rearing their ugly head be it on social media or in confrontations outside mosques. But the latest calls to have surfaced, which have been simmering for a while, are calls for a ‘Muslim block vote.’ This is the doctrine that if Muslims represent a single united block vote – for Labour as it happens to be, they stand a better chance of being a more potent electoral group and thus make their political voice count more effectively. On the face of it, it sounds quite appealing but when you dig into it, it seems to be a false sense of self-importance. Why so you might ask?
A review of demographics based on the 2011 census shows that there are 2.71 million Muslims in the UK, with most living in England – that’s 4.7% of the UK. Of this, there’s 66% (1.8 million) who are above 15 years old. Breaking this out into the relative share of votes in constituencies, it turns out that the Muslim share of the electorate is largest in constituencies that are already Labour safe seats. This isn’t surprising; it merely reflects the post-WW2 settlement history of immigrant working class Muslim communities in industrial towns and large cities across the country. As for marginal seats, again, the assumption that Muslims generally aren’t voting Labour is less probable than not.
A First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system, as ours is, favours continuity over returning different governments each and every time. This is partly because, as one analysis showed, roughly 61% of all seats (400 out of 650) are safe in what is known as ‘safe parliament.’ That is, they rarely change; some haven’t changed since the Victorian times (e.g. North Shropshire has been Tory since 1835 and Doncaster North has been Labour since 1918) whilst others haven’t changed since the 1960s.
Considering these factors, the question then isn’t about absolute Muslim voter numbers but about how many Muslim voters are incrementally undecided in marginal seats (when other factors are normalised). We shouldn’t just gloss over this point; they’re undecided for good reasons. Many people prefer not to have automatic loyalty to any particular party and have special interest in specific policy areas to do with health, taxation, education, Brexit, immigration etc. which might be overriding in their decision.
You’d also have to assume that Muslim voters have all registered – which is very unlikely, and will then actually turn out to vote on the day (only 66% did so in 2015 overall). People often struggle to vote not because they don’t want to, but because they’ve missed the chance to register, or they’re away from home, or the daily grind conspires against them on the day etc. And I’m sure some are in a dilemma about whether to back their current MP if he or she has gone against their own views on such important matters as Brexit.
Now, let’s put the above into the mix of other voter movements. One of the large shifts that we’re likely to see, at least if we believe the analysts, are UKIP votes going to the Conservatives. This alone could in many constituencies completely offset other voter movements. The other big cluster are the undecided swing voters from the wider electorate whom we just don’t know whether or not they’re still looking for a government to finish off the Brexit job – to see through the sentiment against immigration and EU power, or if Corbyn has done enough to sway at least some of them.
Aside from this, there is another more disturbing twist to a Muslim block vote. It could stigmatise those who for perfectly good reasons choose to vote for another party. For whom, you can almost foretell the accusation of being ‘sell outs.’ Yet, no one should feel compelled or guilty for voting differently.
Moreover, hedging political loyalties in such an explicit way seems quite a naive tactic for a community like ours seeking mutually-assured cultural self-assertion. In this scenario, we need to make friends with as wide a political spectrum as possible. This entails not being narrow-minded as tying up the fate of an entire social group with the fortunes of just one party. Besides, singling out a ‘religious identity vote’ would seem to suggest that all Muslims are somehow politically the same and, equally egregiously, for whom only religion is operative. Yet, it’s a fact that Muslims have diverse interests, political leanings and worries about jobs, security, taxation, healthcare etc.
And so, post-GE2017, whether one votes for the Conservatives or Labour or another party, it’s in our collective interest for an emphatic rethink in the way Muslim organisations and politically active individuals engage wider political parties by reaching out to them, working with them productively for mutual benefit and holding back from needless cynicism and suspicion.