MIL-OSI Global: Election 2024: Labour’s Gaza stance has driven many Muslim candidates to stand as independents

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Source: The Conversation – UK – By Parveen Akhtar, Senior Lecturer: Politics, History and International Relations, Aston University

The 2024 election will see a lengthy list of independent candidates standing against Labour politicians in protest against its position on Gaza.

A newly organised group called The Muslim Vote is attempting specifically to mobilise Muslims to vote against Labour in areas where Muslims make up over 10% of the electorate and where the MP voted against a ceasefire in the House of Commons last November. To this end, it has created a list of MPs – mainly independents but also some Workers Party of Britain and Green party candidates – to vote for in target constituencies.

There are 3.9 million Muslims in the UK, according to the 2021 census. Together they make up 6.5% of the population – 1.2 million more than the previous census in 2011.

Traditionally, Muslims have been electorally loyal to Labour. They have long viewed Labour as being sympathetic to the rights of ethnic minorities and the working class – groups that most Muslims, though not all, fall into.

Not all Muslims vote Labour, of course, but it is nevertheless the case that most Muslims see Labour as their natural home. At the local council level, there are, according to the Labour Muslim Councillor Network, over 500 Muslim councillors across the UK – and over 75% of them are members of the Labour party. In the 2019 general election, over 80% of Muslims voted Labour.

But this relationship is fraying as the 2024 election approaches. Labour leader Keir Starmer’s now infamous radio interview in which he appeared to suggest that Israel had the right to cut off power and water in Gaza has stuck in minds. Starmer later clarified what he meant by insisting: “I was saying Israel had the right to self-defence … I was not saying Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines.” But nuanced positions rarely get coverage, of course.

From interviews I have conducted with Muslim voters as part of ongoing research, it is certainly the case that many are disillusioned with the Labour party.

Evidence from the local council, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections across England and Wales in May this year also suggests Labour party support was down by eight points since last year in wards with Muslim populations of over 10% .

Labour lost control of Oldham council, an area that is 24% Muslim. The deputy leader of Manchester council, who represented Labour, also lost his seat to a representative of George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain.

In the West Midlands mayoral election, the independent pro-Gaza candidate, Akmed Yaqoob, won nearly 70,000 votes, coming in third position. He is now contesting Birmingham Ladywood, a safe Labour parliamentary seat held by shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood since 2010.

Read more:
Election 2024: how many seats every party in Westminster is defending – and what they are aiming for on July 4

The Iraq legacy

The relationship between Muslims and Labour has been tested before and, just as now, foreign policy was at the heart of the matter. The 2003 war in Iraq was an important turning point in Labour-Muslim relations. A parliamentary byelection held that same year in the north-west London constituency Brent East saw the Liberal Democrats overturn a Labour parliamentary majority of 13,000.

At the time, the Muslim population of Brent represented over 12% of the borough – and many cited the military intervention in Iraq as their reason for switching.

The byelection represented a milestone. It was the first time that British Muslims had used a bloc vote at parliamentary level. This was repeated nine months later, when Muslims helped to overturn a 12,000 majority in Leicester South, handing the constituency once again to the Liberal Democrats.

Local elections in 2003 saw the Labour party suffer big electoral losses across the country. And in places like Birmingham, with a sizeable Muslim demographic, the party lost control over the local authority, due in part to a “Baghdad backlash”.

The extent of the backlash became clear in the 2005 general election, when the Respect party, a product of the anti-war movement, managed to field 26 candidates. One of those was Galloway, who comfortably won the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow in East London – an area where 40% of the electorate was of British Bangladeshi background and the Muslim vote was high. The seat was taken from Labour’s Oona King, who had voted for military intervention in Iraq.

In 2024, that same constituency, with a re-configured boundary and new name – Bethnal Green and Stepney – will be targeted by an independent pro-Gaza candidate standing against Labour’s Rushanara Ali.

Initially, that independent candidate was Tasnime Akunjee, a Muslim solicitor, who has represented Shamima Begum. However, a few days before the deadline for candidate nominations in June 2024, Akunjee withdrew. He stated in a post on X that the independent movement across the country was being split by multiple people standing in one constituency and that he would step aside to make way for another candidate, Ajmal Masroor.

This illustrates a pressing question for Muslim communities. If they don’t vote Labour, who will they vote for? Unlike in the aftermath of the 2003 war in Iraq, when the Liberal Democrats were in large part the beneficiary of Muslims deciding to turn away from Labour, this time round, there has been a concerted effort to push independent candidates rather than an established party.

Many independents are standing on a Gaza platform, but since there is no official party, that independent pro-Gaza Muslim vote is in danger of being split across multiple independent candidates if more than one stands in any constituency. Not all independent candidates feel so convivially towards others that they would be willing to step aside for them.

Muslims make up over 30% of the electorate in 20 constituencies across the UK. Every one of those constituencies voted in a Labour MP in the 2019 general election. And most will probably return a Labour MP this time round, too. Labour is on course for a large majority, according to every poll.

But as the party marches ahead with a mantra for change, it leaves behind a cohort of voters that is deeply disillusioned. The Muslim vote will not cost the Labour party an election victory. Electorally, Labour need not be too concerned. However, the apparent abandonment of a community of voters who have been loyal to the party for so long and who now find themselves politically homeless may be an issue that Labour may want to reflect on once the euphoria settles.

Parveen Akhtar has previously received funding from the British Academy and the Economic and Social Research Council.

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