Muslim vote grows in British politics, but where is the voice on Gaza?

Next parliament likely to include several new Labour Muslim members despite party's position on Israel

UK Muslim MPs 'face prejudice for demanding Gaza ceasefire'

UK Muslim MPs 'face prejudice for demanding Gaza ceasefire'
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It was a charged exchange that brought tensions in the British Parliament over Gaza to a head, and one that could be reference point for politics in the future as the role of Muslim voters continues to increase.

A diamond-shaped cluster of Labour MPs sat on the Commons benches giving support to one of their own, minutes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak demanded that Labour's Zarah Sultana personally “call on Hamas and the Houthis to de-escalate the situation” in the Red Sea.

Ms Sultana stood to defend herself from the association with Hamas, asking another Conservative MP to withdraw his remarks. Her female Labour colleagues, most of them also Muslims, backed her.

Experts are working hard to determine how the growing Muslim vote will come into play as constituencies are rearranged before the general election this year.

The Conservatives could well lose several seats as a result of their failure to recognise Islamophobia and their support for Israel in the Gaza conflict, a leading Labour Muslim MP has told The National.

Afzal Khan, who chairs the Labour Muslim Network, believes a record number of Muslim MPs are expected to enter Parliament this year, surpassing the current total of 19 from all parties.

“Britain is our home and [Muslims] need to be fully engaged,” said Mr Khan. “You've got to be playing football to score a goal. If you're not playing, the most you can do is cheer the side.

“Nobody can put a case better than yourself so that's why they need to be more engaged.”

This view was reinforced by election surveys, said Chris Hopkins of polling company Savanta.

“As this group grows as a proportion of the population then their influence over British politics will only increase,” he said.

“In the last 10 years there's been a real growth in Muslim community leaders becoming more prevalent in front-line politics.

“Some are now taking this a step further and running for parliament because ultimately representation matters.”

Boundary scramble

With population movement largely to the south of England, new constituencies have been created for the 2024 election through boundary changes.

On paper, this favours the Tories, and has left MPs with the task of determining the ethnic make-up of the new constituencies.

It is highly likely that, given the growing Muslim population in urban areas, there could be an increase from the 19 Muslim MPs elected in 2019.

That number has steadily risen since the first Muslim member was elected in 1997, with eight MPs in the 2010 election and 13 in 2015.

The community is also young, “full of energy” and eager to participate, as there is “no shortage of issues that they face”, said Mr Khan.

An in-depth constituency analysis by political scientist Ben Ansell of the University of Oxford found that the boundary changes give Labour an advantage in every seat that is more than 10 per cent Muslim or 20 per cent Asian.

“You can see how predicted votes in the next election will mean that only Labour represents constituencies with large numbers of ethnic minorities or Muslims,” Prof Ansell wrote. “It also helps explain why Gaza has been such a difficult topic for Keir Starmer.”

Prof Ansell also argued that the Conservatives are highly dependent on constituencies where the population is three-quarters white British, adding that Labour would win every seat where white British were a minority.

The Conservative support base is now largely over 65 and white British, and if the Tories “double down” on policies that benefit this group then they would “tie themselves to a declining proportion of the population”, Prof Ansell said.

Islamophobia charges

Mr Sunak has not helped his party’s situation after he was accused of using an “Islamophobic trope” by demanding that Ms Sultana “call on Hamas and the Houthis”.

Another prominent Labour Muslim MP, Naz Shah, said his comment was a “painful blow” and called on Mr Sunak to apologise, which he refused to do.

While Mr Khan said there was little evidence of Islamophobia in Parliament, he agreed that Mr Sunak should have withdrawn his remarks and apologised, as “we all need to work together” to end the Gaza conflict.

Voting intentions suggest that 64 per cent of Muslims will support Labour, with only 19 per cent likely to back the Conservatives, a Savanta poll published last month suggested.

This could lead to a significant increase in Muslim MPs, said Mr Hopkins. “If people see the other high-profile MPs getting seats or ministerial posts that breeds the next generation of community leaders.”

The Conservative approach to Muslims, which in part explains the party's falling popularity in the community, involves a refusal to accept an official definition of Islamophobia. As the definition is very similar to that of anti-Semitism, this is “just not acceptable”, said Mr Khan.

“There is a duty for government to resolve this issue,” he argued. “Even the Home Office figures tell you that almost half of all religious hate crimes are being committed against Muslims. That's huge.”

Mr Khan argues that the government's failure to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain has also had a significant impact.

“I find it absolutely shocking that in this 21st century Britain, which celebrates this richness and diversity, you have a community of four million plus with an umbrella organisation of more than 500 organisations and yet government feels fit to ignore it,” he said.

While in previous elections the Tories have attracted ethnic voters, and indeed have high-profile Muslim figures, such as former chancellors Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid, their standing has been knocked by these two issues.

Israel criticism

When Labour leader Keir Starmer refused to call for a unilateral ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war, Mr Khan sacrificed his front-bench post to support a parliamentary motion supporting a ceasefire.

That depth of anger was vividly demonstrated at meeting hosted by Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, on Thursday, when activists verbally attacked her over the party’s stance.

One female protester shouted “two women dead every day [in Gaza]”, before she was wrestled out of the venue by police officers.

“Let this haunt Labour every single step of their election campaign,” one party member later wrote on social media.

Labour’s stance could cost it votes, much as US President Joe Biden’s support for Israel is likely to cost him Democratic Muslim voters in November's presidential election.

“My difficulty with the Labour Party's position is the way that they've handled this, I don't think it’s good,” said Mr Khan, who was the joint founder of the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester.

“But the Labour Party is certainly moving in the right direction, and I hope it carries on until we get this ceasefire.”

While Gaza has had an impact on Mr Starmer’s popularity among Muslims, it still ranked fourth in importance after inflation, the NHS and the economy in the Savanta poll.

“Ultimately, what matters to Muslim voters, as much as anyone else, is still the cost of living and the realities of living in the UK,” said Mr Hopkins.

Updated: January 29, 2024, 8:46 AM