The Muslim vote in the UK

The Muslim vote in the UK

After five truly gripping days of political horse-trading at Westminster in London, David Cameron has emerged as the new British Prime Minister in the first coalition government since 1940.

By ousting the incumbent Gordon Brown from Downing Street, this new Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance – previous sworn enemies – brings to an end thirteen years of center-left, socialist Labor rule.

It was an era dominated by the Iraq War and, latterly, by the economic crisis.

Both issues would undoubtedly have been at the forefront of British Muslim’s minds as they cast their votes last Thursday. Traditionally, many Muslims have supported the Labor Party due to its perceived sympathy to immigrants from South Asia – former British colonies such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

In addition, many come from a poorer background, and Labor’s welfare system appealed to those who lack the necessary qualifications or were unemployed.

But the gradual erosion of civil liberties in light of the 9/11 and the 2005 London transit system attacks, the subsequent introduction of anti-terrorism laws, racial profiling, random stop-and-search, and rising Islamophobia – sometimes violent – during the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown era made many Muslims think twice before blindly putting a cross next to Labor on the ballot paper.

Added to these were last year’s deeply embarrassing parliamentary expenses scandal in which MPs at Westminster milked taxpayers’ money to pay for anything from duck houses to garlic-presser, voter apathy and general disillusionment with Labor and you can see why the Muslim vote has begun to fragment or even disappear in recent elections.

That is somewhat ironic given the fact that Labor did more than any other governing parties in reaching out to the Muslim population – estimated to be around two million in the UK.

Since 1997, faith schools have received an increase in funding. Likewise, Sharia compliant financial services were allowed, religious discrimination in the workplace was outlawed, and incitement to religious hatred was made law. Also, Labor made a huge effort in establishing dialogue with Muslim leaders such as the influential Muslim Council of Britain.

But British campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan turned many Muslim voters away from Labor in 2005. Stringent and wide-ranging anti-terrorism laws introduced after the London attacks in July 2005 had an adverse impact upon the Muslim population in Britain – none more so than the controversial GB£80m PVE program (Preventing Violent Extremism) adopted by local authorities, and which aims to stop people becoming or supporting terrorists.

Many turned to the Liberal Democrats which was the only major party to vote against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Likewise, the single-issue anti-war party, Respect, garnered enough votes to oust a sitting Labor MP from a predominantly Muslim constituency in East London during the last election.

This time, however, the Iraq War – and indeed, foreign policy – played a much less significant role than the 2005 election. All the major parties broadly agree on the strategies required to tackle the British mission in Afghanistan, and Iraq was barely mentioned at any point.

To illustrate this point, only half of the televised political leaders’ debate on foreign policy was devoted to international issues; the rest focused on domestic problems.

Instead, all the major political parties focused on the economy, job cuts, reduced public services spending and tackling the huge national deficit.

In light of the impending period of austerity, some Muslims turned to the Conservatives for this election – especially Arabs and Iranians living in the UK. The Iraq War is no longer the issue that it once was, and since many of these voters were dissatisfied with the recession, they felt that a change of government would be good.

This is in stark contrast to the many Muslim Arabs who arrived in the UK during the Thatcher years of the 1980s. It is said that those who still remember Mrs Thatcher’s government would never vote Conservative. But many haven’t experienced that, and would have had no problem voting for a youthful David Cameron. However, this is a more compassionate, social liberal brand of Conservatism which stresses the importance of local communities and family values – two pluses for many Muslim families.

Conversely, some younger Muslim voters would have voted for the Liberal Democrats again, continuing a trend which began in 2005 when many backed the third party due to its anti-war stance.

They would also argue that neither the Conservatives nor Labor differ greatly in their policies towards the Middle East. Neither would they have been too enamored with the strong backing for the Conservatives by pro-Israeli groups.

For them, the Liberal Democrats seemed to offer the most just policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue – a passionate subject amongst young Muslims in the UK, especially in university campuses.

Inevitably though, tribal loyalties and family voting traditions meant a large proportion of the Muslim vote stayed with Labor, whose open-door policy to unfettered immigration was seized upon by right-wing parties such as the British National Party and the UK Independence Party, both of which can best be described as Islamophobic and anti-immigration.

These two parties deliberately targeted Labor seats with large number of ethnic minorities and where racial tension runs high between them and the local, working-class English population.

In the end, these fringe parties were resoundingly rejected by the voters – losing seats across the board in local councils, and more importantly, failing to gain a seat in the national parliament at Westminster. This is in stark contrast to last year’s European elections when they made significant gains on the local level at the expense of the Labor.

Without a doubt, tireless campaigning by anti-fascists groups helped galvanize the Muslim vote in these volatile electoral battleground. But we mustn’t underestimate the importance of local mosques and the local Islamic media in getting the Muslim vote out. It isn’t easy though – many conservative Muslims would never vote for any man that legislates other than Allah, and the ‘Voting is permissible’ message can sometimes be difficult to interpret.

However, none of the big three parties won an absolute majority of seats in parliament, thus leading to five days of political wrangling and coalition talks.

So, with a Conservative-Liberal coalition – it has already been dubbed ‘ConDem Nation’ – now in place, Muslims in Britain will be eager to see how Cameron and the Liberal leader Nick Clegg – now Deputy Prime Minister – will work together on issues which matter to them.

Many would be troubled by the Conservatives’ pro-Israeli stance. Indeed, Cameron called himself ‘a Zionist’ just recently, and his party refused to support sanctions against Israel’s attacks on Gaza last year. Clegg’s party, by contrast, was the lone voice in calling for the EU to punish Israel by suspending any new agreements, but his party retains close links to pro-Israel groups.

The two parties also differ slightly on anti-terrorism laws. The Conservatives have committed to review anti-terror legislations and the PVE but failed to promise anything substantial whilst the Liberals are, well, more liberal in their thinking, promoting civil liberties and fairness. The Conservatives must also repair relations with the Muslim Council of Britain – an urgent priority for many Muslims.

This parliament is slated to last for five years and this in itself will be put into law very soon in order to avoid snap elections later this summer. However, many European commentators – many of whom are seasoned coalition observers – have already written off Cameron’s government as a caretaker administration, and fully expect new elections to be called within a year.

Republished With Permission From Bikya Masr