Are Labour losing touch with British Muslims? | Kieran Everson
Labour have defied the polls and held onto Batley and Spen. However, their majority has been sliced to a tiny 323 votes. This whole contest sounded all too familiar for them. George Galloway? A dirty campaign? A sizable Muslim electorate who have been energised by conflict overseas? They’d seen it all before – twice! While they were able to hang on this time, Galloway’s result should not be overlooked, garnering 8,264 votes (22%). Labour were just about able to survive this assault, reportedly by overperforming in Tory areas, but the tight win shows uncertainty in their future.
A key part of Labour’s electoral coalition is falling away: British Muslims. The recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict sparked outrage from these communities, demanding that their elected politicians take a tougher stance against Israel. Labour have been caught in an impossible situation. Much of Starmer’s leadership has been dedicated to distancing the party from the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn – whose platform included being unequivocally pro-Palestine. The explosive claims of antisemitism, which led to the former leader’s removal from the PLP, have clearly defined the mission of the current leadership. This dismantling of the Corbyn legacy has been nothing short of brutal. The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey springs to mind, a close Corbyn ally who was removed from the shadow cabinet after retweeting an article. The piece mentioned American police being taught deadly tactics from seminars with Israeli secret services, which – according to Starmer – was an antisemitic conspiracy theory. He went on to say that his first priority as leader was to tackle anti-Semitism and rebuild trust with the Jewish community. Another key flashpoint came immediately after the leadership election when Starmer reversed Labour’s position on Kashmir, choosing to describe it as a ‘constitutional issue’ for the Indian parliament to resolve.
Jeremy Corbyn put the Muslim community at the heart of his socialist coalition. The numbers are undeniable. In 2019, 86% of Muslims say they voted Labour. Corbyn is a lifetime supporter of the Palestinian cause. This has, rather infamously, led to a variety of gaffes such as describing Hamas as his ‘friends’ and attending the memorial of a PLO leader. He said that, if elected, his government would immediately recognise Palestine as a state. Corbyn also made a strong point of supporting Kashmir, passing an emergency motion for the party to support international observers entering the region and demanding the right of self-determination for its people. Clearly, this sharp turn from being led by the Labour Left – who are naturally pro-Palestine, pro-Kashmir – to a more centrist leadership will have ripples across Muslim supporters. Here, Galloway saw a clear opening, targeting Labour voters who feel disenfranchised by Starmer.
Last time Galloway exploited this friction it was with the newly formed Respect Party. Formed in 2004, it grew from the Stop the War Coalition. Uniting Muslim activists with the far left, their platform was proudly socialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist. Their key issue was opposition to the Iraq War. As well as this, they were able to take advantage of wider anger towards New Labour to gain key support amongst the British Left and cultivated strong links with the Socialist Workers Party.
Running as the Respect candidate, Galloway won a shock win in the 2005 General Election, unseating Oona King, Labour MP for Bethnal Green & Bow – gaining 15,801 votes and a swing of 26.2%. The campaign was bitter. King was told she had blood on her hands by Galloway for her strong support of the war, as well as being pelted with eggs at a Jewish memorial service. Respect activists were also accused of using antisemitic messaging during their canvassing, reportedly warning Muslims not to vote for ‘a Jew’. His anti-war messaging clearly resonated with the electorate, especially it’s 45,000 Muslim residents. Journalists reported that the Iraq War was a huge issue for Muslims across Tower Hamlets – where they made up 50% of the total 120,000 residents – with almost everyone having attended marches against the war. The result made it clear that Labour had fallen out of favour with British Muslims for their actions in Iraq. With many of these residents being 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, they had a tangible stake in such foreign policy. This strengthened their solidarity with Muslims across the globe.
In 2012, Galloway struck gold again in Bradford West. He succeeded in exploiting a weak, unpopular local Labour party by uniting the sizable Muslim population behind him. His leaflets even promoted the idea that Galloway himself was a Muslim and does not touch alcohol, while bashing his Labour opponent as someone who can be found down the pub.
The other key to Galloway’s Batley campaign has been social conservatism, specifically targeting Muslim opposition to LGBT relationships being taught in schools with controversial speeches to his supporters. This is nothing new. The collision course between Labour and Muslim voters over this has been coming for a while. In 2019, Roger Godsiff MP responded to his constituents in Birmingham protesting against LGBT-inclusive sex education by siding with the protestors. More recently, Shabana Mahmood MP sided with Muslim parents in her constituency who spent weeks protesting against homosexuality being taught in schools. She appeased her voters and raised concerns about whether the context was appropriate for primary school children. Both of these MPs were met with fierce criticism from Labour activists and Pink News alike. There was a clear clash between the metropolitan, liberal values of the London-centric Labour and their Muslim heartlands.
Looking ahead, which other seats may be at risk of a Galloway upset? There are many seats with much higher Muslim populations than Batley and Spen (18.8%), such as: Birmingham Hodge Hill (52.1%), Bradford West (51.3%), Birmingham Hall Green (46.6%), and East Ham (37.4%). All of these constituencies have Labour MPs which could be at risk if the Workers Party were to gain momentum and offer a Muslim-centred alternative to Labour, just as Respect previously did. The legacy of Jeremy Corbyn, and Keir Starmer’s desperate attempts to crush it, may strengthen this. Disenchanted Labour voters have experienced true socialist leadership and may just be willing to sacrifice concessions over social values if it means creating a new left-wing movement.