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May 16, 2005

British Muslims and the 2005 Election

Posted by Anthony McRoy

What impact did the Muslim vote have on the result of the 2005 British general election? Dr Anthony McRoy - a writer on Islam in the UK - argues that the political outlook of British Muslims has markedly changed and that this affected the election. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The 2005 election may not have been "the khaki election", but it was certainly "the Iraqi election". Tony Blair's comments after the election result demonstrated that he recognised how strongly the issue had affected the outcome, with many Labour voters defecting to the Liberal Democrats and others. It was also a contributing factor to the inability of the Conservatives to make the necessary progress to which they aspired; they were unable to capitalise on public outrage over Iraq because they had been as zealous for the war as Blair himself. However, the Iraq factor affected one section of the community more than any other, and their participation holds out the prospect of a seismic shift in the nature of British politics: the Muslim community.

A Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) statement welcomed:

the role of the Muslim vote in numerous constituencies which affected clearly either the outcome of the vote or the share thereof. It was absolutely clear that the Muslim community decided to utilise their numbers in several dozen constituencies to bring about a recognition of the issues of concern to them, particularly the anti-terror laws and the war in Iraq.
In many ways the community became electoral kingmakers.

The Daily Telegraph observed the day after the election:

The Muslim community appears to have vented its fury over Tony Blair's support for the war in Iraq by turning its back on Labour. Constituencies with high Muslim populations demonstrated an average nine per cent swing away from the party they have traditionally voted for. Although many live in areas with seemingly unassailable Labour majorities, their impact was felt by the significant erosion in those Labour majorities.
It was not only a case of reduced majorities: the paper further noted that: Labour's Barbara Roche lost her Hornsey and Wood Green seat in north London to the Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone after a huge 14.6 per cent swing. The Muslim vote - they make up 7.2 per cent of the population - undoubtedly contributed to her demise.

It was not only in Hornsey that the Muslim vote had a major effect upon the election's outcome. Rochdale Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimons lost out to the Lib Dems, not only because of Iraq, but because of her strongly pro-Israeli views.

The most spectacular result was in the previously safe Labour seat of Bethnal Green and Bow, where voters punished both Blair and the sitting MP, Oona King, over Iraq, by electing the outspoken opponent of the Iraq war George Galloway for RESPECT, who stated to Blair after his triumph:

This defeat is for Iraq ...All the people you have killed, all the lies you have told have come back to haunt you.
The result was interesting because, despite claims by some commentators, race and gender paid little or no role in the result. Ms King was regarded by the local community as an excellent constituency MP and was outspoken in her pro-Palestinian views, but she made what was in the view of the locals the catastrophic error of voting for the war against Iraq. Galloway, by contrast, is a hero to many Muslims worldwide because of his uncompromising stance on Iraq and Palestine. In many ways it was not so much King who lost as it was Blair – certainly, Galloway's victory speech was directed against the Prime Minister.

A definitive shift in allegiance appears to have occurred, with large numbers of Muslims giving their votes to the Lib Dems rather than Labour. Overwhelmingly, the reason was Iraq. MAB spokesman Anas Altikriti stated:

Iraq, after more than 2 years, proved a pivotal issue in the minds of many, Muslims and otherwise. The significant haemorrhage of both seats and votes suffered by Labour, and especially in constituencies where Muslims form more than 5% of the population, indicated a strong Muslim turnout and a highly organised stand in regards to their respective approach to the elections... Generally, results across East London, the Midlands, the North West and Yorkshire all confirmed the strong showing of the Muslim vote, which in many constituencies was buffed up as a result of building alliances and voting tactically along with other sections of the local societies.

Four main factors explain the changes in the voting behaviour of British Muslims. Firstly, it appears that as with the wider British electorate, the Muslim community is no longer bound by the tribal allegiance to parties that once characterised British politics. Indeed, with the demise of socialism and communism following the Reagan/Thatcher years, the emergence of New Labour, and Tory shifts to the centre, there is little ideological difference between the parties. With the convergence of domestic policies, space has been left for foreign policies to become a deciding factor in voting. This is what benefited the Lib Dems and undermined the Conservative recovery – the Tories were as pro-war as Labour, so it was impossible for them to benefit from the votes of those who were outraged at Labour's backing for Bush.

"Public" outrage is the second factor that needs to be recognised. It was not only Muslims who were aggrieved; it is clear from the results across the UK that many in the wider British public were also galvanised by Iraq. Hence, Muslims were simply the vanguard of a crest of national disillusion with both Tories and Labour over the war. This indicates that Muslims can influence results when the wider public are in sympathy with them.

A third factor is the obvious decline in effectiveness of the methods the Labour party used to ensure that it received the lions share of the votes of the Muslim community. Faisal Bodi, writing in The Guardian, noted:

Labour politicians have cultivated the "community leader", the modern-day equivalent of the village chief, whose unique selling point is that he can bring in the vote of the particular ethnic sub-category he belongs to, be it by fair means or rigged postal votes.
The decline in the effectiveness of such methods is linked to the growing influence of the younger generation of Muslims, who are more comfortable in their Britishness. The days when Muslims would vote for some incompetent figure simply because he belonged to their biraderi (Pakistani clan), or because he came from Sylhet in Bangladesh or Aden are numbered. The British-born generation are also more Islamic, concerned for the global Muslim community, and though only a minority are from Palestine or Iraq, it is these issues – even more than Kashmir – which galvanise them, as shown by Fitzsimons' defeat, even though she expressed support for Kashmiri aspirations.

The final, fourth major factor in the results was the impact of lobbying and guidance. The Muslim Council of Britain issued a pamphlet naming ten issues on which to confront candidates. MAB were bolder, giving specific advice as to which particular candidates in certain constituencies should receive the Muslim vote. A further step was undertaken by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), a body of young UK-born Muslims who ironically base their methodology on the strategy of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. MPAC established teams on the ground to confront pro-war and pro-Israeli MPs such as Jack Straw, Lorna Fitzsimons, Mike Gapes, and Andrew Dismore – interventions which received media coverage. We have already noted that Fitzsimons was unseated, and the rest had their majorities slashed, causing this ecstatic comment by MPAC:

No longer can Labour MPs count on blind support from Muslims… The days when pro-Israel, anti-Muslim MPs can exploit the ignorance of Muslims are numbered. The days when the likes of Jack Straw or Mike Gapes can represent Muslims are numbered. A new generation of British Muslims are stepping up to claim our rights, and many of the first generation are joining us. This is the birth of a grassroots movement. The end of passive victimhood and the beginning of empowerment.

The party machines now know that Muslims are ready to prioritise foreign policy concerns such as Iraq and Palestine, and this could lead to the British government leaning on Bush to change course on Palestine as Muslim lobbyists and voters keep up the pressure. The results also make it less likely (though not impossible) that Britain will join Bush in any attack against Syria and Iran, since vulnerable MPs, councillors and party bosses will know that they pay the electoral price for such actions.

The Muslim defection from Labour began in 2003 and in elections since, this has been maintained. In many ways this is a hopeful development – if young British Muslims think that they can influence government foreign policy democratically they will be less likely to volunteer for overseas jihad acts, such as the two British Muslims who volunteered for what are called "martyrdom operations" in Tel Aviv. Significantly, the calls from "the Saviour Sect", successors to Al-Muhajiroun, who urged a boycott of the election, went largely unheeded. One form of participatory radical Islam undermined a rejectionist form.

This election displayed an increasing sophistication by Muslim voters, and also their independence at grass roots level. A letter by Muslim scholars to The Guardian urging a Labour vote appears to have been unsuccessful. The fact that MPs regarded as hostile to Muslim interests and aspirations faced an organised lobby at constituency level indicates that taking Muslim voters for granted is no longer an option. In many ways this was an unusual election. Possibly we have to go back to the Boer War to discover when foreign policy, rather than domestic concerns, dominated an election. Moreover, this shows that British racial and religious diversity has now affected the electoral system. As in America, ethnic and faith community caucuses are now a significant factor in how elections turn out. The 2005 election may well turn out to be a watershed in UK politics in more ways than one.

Dr Anthony McRoy is a writer on Islam in the UK. He is completing a study on the politics of British Islam for the Social Affairs Unit.

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Leaving aside the Iraq factor, the result seems poetic justice on Mr Blair for allowing his good lady to handle the politically sensitive case of the girl who wanted to wear the jilbab at school. I have no judgement on the case itself, because I am not sure whether the girl was motivated by conscience or politics. But Mrs Blair's involvement in "issues" has never, to my mind, been beneficial.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 21, 2005 01:08 PM

In reply to Mr Olley,
firstly I don't see any relevance at all between Cherie's handling of the case and the 2005 election.
secondly, i really don't see why its Mr Blair role to 'allow' or 'disallow' his wife to handle cases - surely she is 'allowed' to decide these things for herself.


Posted by: Ulysses Clay at March 27, 2006 12:13 PM
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