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Labour and the Tories may live to regret abandoning the UK's Muslims

From supporting Israel to not tackling Islamophobia, the main parties see the loss of Muslim votes as a price worth paying. Signs are growing that could prove costly come election day
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer at the Houses of Parliament in London on 7 November, 2023 (AFP)

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary James Cleverly and Foreign Secretary David Cameron were guests of honour at the annual Conservative Friends of Israel business lunch in central London two weeks ago.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, were also present, along with 700 other guests. 

More than 100 days into the Gaza War, it is hard to think of a more powerful statement that the British government is fully on the side of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel regardless of 26,000 Palestinians dead.

A few days earlier, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer had made his own public demonstration of his unqualified support for Israel when he addressed a Jewish Labour Movement meeting in north London. 

He chose this moment to speak publicly for the first time about Labour’s decision to drop its support for a Palestinian state - peculiar timing, given Netanyahu’s refusal to entertain a two-state solution.

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Starmer had not bothered to warn Husam Zomlot, Palestinian head of mission in London, even though his remarks pertained to Palestine, not Israel.

The message from the leaders of Britain’s two main parties is stark. 

Neither is disturbed by Israeli atrocities and war crimes, or the genocidal language used by Israeli leaders up to and including Israeli President Isaac Herzog (who spoke via a video address alongside Sunak at the Conservative Friends of Israel business lunch).

It’s impossible that with either leader in charge, Palestinians could trust Britain to play any role in building peace when this conflict ends.

'Shaking off the fleas'

The cross-party merger on Gaza is the latest and most egregious example of the unspoken agreement between the two main political parties: Muslims should be at best ignored and at worst targeted and marginalised.

Islamophobia is today rife within Labour, as Ali Milani, former Labour candidate against Boris Johnson in Uxbridge in 2019, highlighted in a devastating interview with Middle East Eye.

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The Martin Forde report emphasised Labour’s Islamophobia. More recently, a Labour Party source reportedly referred to Muslims leaving Labour as “shaking off the fleas”. Ugly, dehumanising language.

The Labour leadership seems to have decided that the loss of Muslim support is acceptable. Starmer’s strategic focus is on what party insiders call “hero voters” - code for Labour supporters, many in northern constituencies, who switched to Johnson’s Tories in 2019. 

But the Conservative party is worse. As I have set out in a series of investigative articles for Middle East Eye, the Tory organisation persistently smears and targets Britain’s Muslim minority.

During Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 campaign to be mayor of London. With the fabricated Trojan Horse affair, whipped up by the Tory government in alliance with a virulently Islamophobic mass media.

The government attack on the nationwide ceasefire marches as “hate marches” is the latest case in point. 

This exclusion of Britain’s largest religious minority from mainstream politics is terrible for democracy, and a disaster for social cohesion.

Muslims are mobilising

For Britain’s almost four-million Muslim population, this creates an urgent problem: how should they vote in the looming general election given that so many of their concerns are ignored or despised by the two biggest political parties?

The election could be called within weeks, if speculation that Sunak will choose 2 May turns out to be correct. 

Muslims are mobilising. Earlier this month came the bombshell announcement that British-Palestinian Leanne Mohamad would run as an independent candidate in Ilford North against Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting.

The young activist was chosen after a hustings at the Redbridge Community Action Group, which had promised to support a candidate that would be “strong on Palestine, NHS, racism, Islamophobia and the cost of living crisis”.

Elected as an MP in 2015, Streeting is vulnerable. He has a majority of more than 5,000, which in normal circumstances should increase sharply with the Tories collapsing at the polls. 

'I am standing [against Labour] because the incumbent did not give a voice to her constituents. She’s a puppet on a string for Starmer'

Tasnime Akunjee, human rights lawyer

But the circumstances are not normal. According to a 2021 census, the London Borough of Redbridge (which contains Ilford North) has a 31 percent Muslim population, and polls suggest that Labour's support among the community has dropped as a result of its stance on Gaza.

That drop in support is not enough to secure victory for Mohamad - but could be enough to cost Streeting his majority.

Last week, the human rights lawyer Tasnime Akunjee declared that he will go “head to head” against the incumbent Labour MP Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green and Stepney. 

Ali, who abstained rather than support last year’s Commons vote to support a ceasefire in Gaza, secured a whopping majority of 37,524 in 2019.  But 41,390 (40.1 percent) of her electorate is Muslim, making her less impregnable than she looks.

Akunjee told MEE: "I am standing because the incumbent did not give a voice to her constituents. She’s a puppet on a string for Starmer. The party system is now a force against democracy rather than a force for democracy."

Need for collaboration

As the Guardian reveals in a well-informed article on Wednesday, Starmer’s office has begun polling British Muslim voters as fears rise about the damage done to their core vote.

To me this feels like too little, too late. The damage is done.

More independents are likely to emerge, many of them coordinated by a community-based campaign called “the Muslim Vote”, an initiative which bears comparison with the “Abandon Biden” campaign among Arab Americans, which is considered to have inflicted significant damage on Joe Biden’s poll rating in the United States.

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The Muslim Vote (TMV) was launched on 19 December. It has been endorsed by Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend), the Muslim Association of Britain, the Muslim Council of Scotland and Prevent Watch - among other groups. Its mission statement says: “We will no longer tolerate being taken for granted. We are a powerful, united force of four million acting in unison.

“We are focused on seats where the Muslim vote can influence the outcome. We are here for the long term. In 2024, we will lay the foundations for our community’s political future.”

Though not the first concerted attempt to galvanise the Muslim vote, it is the most powerful to date. 

TMV says it has “thousands” of volunteers and its campaign supporters “collectively reach over 20 million” people. It offers to come and “help you determine whether your local area should put up an independent”. It also offers to help with analysing constituency data - and with organising a local campaign.

The basic principle behind this initiative is: “We will not back anyone who voted against or abstained on the ceasefire vote. We believe in devolved decision-making. Local communities will be empowered to back a candidate that is pro-Palestine and pro-peace.”

Pro-Palestinian candidates will need to be brave. Guido Fawkes, the right-wing website, has already launched the inevitable assault on Akunjee, who is the lawyer for Shamima Begum, with the headline "Isis Bride Lawyer Stands Against Labour". Expect much more of the same.

Starmer has worked almost as hard at driving the left out of the Labour Party as he has at turning his back on Muslims

There are of course many problems. British Muslims, like any other community, are divided. They need to find a way of collaborating if they are to make their voices heard at a national level.

And not just with each other. Starmer has worked almost as hard at driving the left out of the Labour Party as he has at turning his back on Muslims. 

There are indications that the left is also beginning to mobilise against Starmer. It needs to work with the Muslim community. This should not cause too much of a problem. Muslim organisations and the left have worked together before, most notably in the Stop the War protests against the Iraq invasion of 2003.

As the two main parties turn their backs on Muslims, while moving ever further towards the right, we may be seeing the emergence of a new British Muslim political consciousness.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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