Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Operation Muslim Vote


Naima Bouteldja

“There is a spectre haunting the British General Election – the spectre of the ‘Muslim vote”. From election pundits and politicians to Mosque-regulars themselves, there is now widespread consensus that New Labour will face a huge backlash on May 5th from its traditionally most loyal constituency over Iraq, Guantanamo and the new anti-Terror laws.

The notion that a ‘Muslim vote’ exists is of course controversial – voting behaviour is based on an array of factors and Muslims will vote for many different parties and on many different issues on May 5th. But egged on by a media hungry for electoral ‘shock and awe’ and the very deliberate public posturing of Muslim interest groups, political parties are convinced the Muslim vote could make or break their electoral fortunes this time around.

Upon reflection, both history and geography tell us that they could be right. Throughout the post war era Britain’s Muslim voters have been unwaveringly Labour. In 1997 for example 86% of Muslim votes went to Labour. Despite numbering just over 1.1 million of Britain’s 44 million potential voters, the heavy concentration of Muslim communities in the South-East (mainly Greater London) and a handful of deprived areas in the North and the Midlands has also meant that in many constituencies, the Muslim vote has effectively delivered Labour MPs to Westminster. In approximately 40 seats, over 10 percent of the local population is Muslim, in nine constituencies this rises to over 20 percent and in three key seats, the figures are spectacular: Bradford West (38%), Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath (40%), and Bethnal Green and Bow (39%).

The Iraq War, however, has changed everything. For the first time large swathes of the Muslim communities have become politically active, radicalised even, through their leading involvement in the anti-war movement. Their sense of betrayal at the hands of Labour is expected to show in the election results.

Put simply, if enough Muslim voters break with Labour on Thursday, Labour safe seats will become marginals and marginals will almost certainly yield a cluster of ‘Portillo moments’ across the country. Sensing electoral blood, both the Lib Dems and Respect, a new anti-war political party led by George Galloway but largely staffed by newly-politicised young Muslims, are openly targeting the disaffected Muslim vote.

Despite the appearance of last-minute warm words being shoved through letter boxes, all three major parties have been pursuing near identical strategies for retaining or capturing Muslim votes for the last two years. The first part of ‘Operation Muslim Vote’ has been a classic co-optation manoeuvre with the creation of ‘Muslim Forums’ within each party. In July 2003, Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, inaugurated the ‘independent’ Muslims for Labour group (which since then has became Muslim Friends of Labour). It was of course only a coincidence that Timms had gone back on his word to support the Iraq war and 30 percent of East Ham’s residents are Muslim.

Not ones to miss a trick, towards the end of 2004 the Tories created a Muslim Forum at the heart of their ethnic minority sub-group. Wasn’t this just gesture politics? Not at all, according to Dominic Grieve, Prospective Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Beaconsfield and Shadow Attorney General, it was a way to “permit the Muslim community to voice its propositions to the Party.”

By January 2005, the Lib Dems had caught the bug and initiated a Muslim Forum within the Ethnic Minority for Liberal Democrats (EMLD) founded eleven years ago, although to his credit EMLD’s Chair, Fiyaz Mughal, does not seem too enamoured with the decision: “Muslims do not want to be isolated or separated... It is a mistake to start labelling and creating tokenistic little groups and it creates disharmony. Other communities would have to have one as well. The fundamental issue that all minority communities have in common before all others is that of equality’.

The second part of Operation Muslim Vote has been to create a strong but largely symbolic Muslim face for each party. This election will see a record number of Muslim candidates being paraded by the three main parties. The Lib Dems top the field with twenty-two candidates compared to ten in 2001. Labour has selected eight Muslim candidates alongside incumbent MPs Mohammed Sawar and Khalid Mahmood who will attempt to keep their seats in Glasgow Govan and Birmingham, Perry Barr respectively. The Conservatives are fielding fifteen candidates, three times the number at the last General Election.

Don’t expect to see many more Muslim faces in the House of Commons however. By their parties’ own admission, just a handful stand any chance of becoming MPs. Only Labour, moreover, has actually selected candidates for seats it already holds, a sign according to Hanif Adeel, joint national coordinator of Muslim Friends of Labour, of the Labour Party’s commitment to representing Muslims at “the heart of government and placing them within the political decision-making policy”.

Dominic Grieve, meanwhile, assures that the Tories are definitely not engaging in tokenism: “It is not in the tradition of our Party to be elected in a seat we hold without having proved one’s strength, and as most candidates present themselves for the first time it would have been surprising that they were chosen for seats that we were sure to win”.

But when you learn that all three political parties have approached the prominent anti-war activist and Respect’s co-founding member and candidate in Birmingham Sparkbrook, Salma Yaqoob, to stand for them despite her vocal and open hostility towards them, it is hard not to believe that the major parties commitment to Muslims only goes skin-deep. Yaqoob understandably is incensed: “the accusations of identity politics, and political opportunism thrown at Respect by our political opponents are hypocritical. We may be a new party but we are old enough to see through their own cynical games of targeting Muslim voters with phoney achievements and false promises.”

The third and most controversial aspect of Operation Muslim Vote, however, is the development of a very deliberate ‘community-oriented’ rhetoric designed to identify so-called Muslim values with each party’s programme for power. Barely a day goes by without the party machines placing targeted media stories associating the Lib Dems with opposition to war, Labour with ‘faith schools’ and the Tories with ‘traditional family values’. Then there’s the specially designed election literature for Muslim letter-boxes, laden with positive references to ‘Iraq’, ‘Palestine’, ‘Bangladesh’ and the like.

More disturbingly, this communal politics is now being used in reverse where the Muslim vote seriously threatens to unseat Labour MPs. Take Bethnal Green and Bow in East London, where the face-off between Blair loyalist Oona King and Respect’s anti-war champion, George Galloway, is on a knife-edge. The constituency, where 39 per cent are Muslim, has twice elected King with a 10 000 majority in 2001. Now, however, she feels compels to campaign with constant reference to her Jewish identity and recently spread allegations of anti-Semitism among Respect’s Muslim activists. The predictable fallout has inflamed community relations, but this is part and parcel of Labour’s own cynical ‘Operation Muslim Vote’ strategy – to scare enough Muslims away from abandoning Labour. In the current anti-Terror climate, the last thing Muslims want is to be seen as anti-semitic militants.

It is not just the party strategists, however, who portray Muslims as a homogenous bloc only concerned with the Middle East and religious issues. The Muslim establishment itself, led by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), has been a central actor in Operation Muslim Vote, all too willingly setting out a narrow, religious-based political platform to the detriment of a broader class and race empowerment agenda allied to other communities of the oppressed.

The danger for those Muslims politicised by Iraq and the attack on civil liberties and passionately organising to defeat Labour on May 5th, is that disappointment on the night will instantly turn them off political activism altogether. They will of course know that political liberation movements take many decades to mature, and they must learn from other experiences of minority empowerment, not only in Britain but also France and the United States to avoid the many traps and divisive manoeuvres which will inevitably come their way. The one thing that is certain, however, is that many Muslims are no longer a captive audience willing to put a cross next to Labour every five years.

Naima Bouteldja

1 comment(s):

  • Salaams

    In the UK's 'first past the post' system, I have heard more than a few Muslims (online) appealing to Muslims to vote 'tactically'. But I will vote on principle - for the Greens.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 5/04/2005 05:36:00 AM  

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