In UK, Muslims threaten electoral damage on Labour Party over support for Israel

LONDON (RNS) — A few days before the British go to the polls on Thursday (July 4) to elect their national government, political pundits and polling companies are predicting a landslide for the Labour Party, ousting the Conservative government after 14 years in power.

But there are a number of parliamentary seats, once considered safe bets for the Labour Party, that are under threat as thousands of Muslim voters organize to unify their votes around support for Palestinians and a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war. 

The Labour Party under its current leader, Sir Keir Starmer, once under fire for its inability to tackle antisemitism, is embroiled in a fresh row over its attitude toward Israel and the war in Gaza, following the attacks by Hamas on kibbutzim last October. Debate over whether Labour has been supportive enough toward Palestinians has cast its shadow over many inner city seats that Labour might otherwise have confidently expected to win, with campaigners urging Muslim voters to reject Labour and opt for other, often independent, candidates.

Around 6.5 million Muslims live in the UK, according to 2021 census data, and most tend to be clustered in specific neighborhoods in London, Birmingham and several northern cities. In the past six weeks since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the election, Muslim organizations have been rallying followers of Islam to vote. The Henry Jackson Society, a think tank, claims there are 17 constituencies where the Muslim electorate is substantial enough to affect the outcome of the ballot.

According to Zara Mohammed, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, speaking at a Religion Media Center briefing on May 15, there has been “voter apathy and a disconnect between voters and politicians,” in recent years.

But now this is changing, she said, thanks to voter registration drives of organizations like hers and “a lot of charged emotion” — much of it concerning Palestine and the situation in Gaza. With half of Muslims being under 24, the registration drive will see additional younger voters casting their ballots — and they are among the most distressed over Gaza.

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks on stage at the launch of The Labour party's 2024 general election manifesto in Manchester, England, Thursday, June 13, 2024. The election will take place on July 4. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Britain’s Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, speaks on stage at the launch of The Labour party’s 2024 general election manifesto in Manchester, England, Thursday, June 13, 2024. The election will take place on July 4. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

“Big political parties have quite strained relationships with Muslims,” she said. “There is a real feeling of disenfranchisement right now. People are saying that their votes are taken for granted. A lot of trust needs to be repaired.”

Mohammed said conversations with Muslim voters indicate they are considering switching away from voting for Labour, which would mark a distinct change in Muslim voting patterns. 

Paul Bickley, head of political engagement of Theos, a British religion think tank that researches religious voting patterns, confirms that “Muslims voted substantially for Labour in the past.” Research into voting preferences conducted a year ago showed Muslim support for Labour was at 58% (compared to 35% among the general population).

But these figures were compiled before the Hamas attacks on Israel in October 2023 and the ensuing Israeli advance on Gaza, which has left 35,000 people dead, according to U.N. figures, of which just over half are women and children.

According to Bickley, Theos does believe support for Labour will shift now within Muslim communities — a belief shared by the team at The Muslim Vote, an umbrella organization set up by several Muslim bodies to help unify Muslims as a voting bloc, specifically around “peace in Palestine. Equality in the UK,” according to its website.

Abubakr Nanabawa, the organization’s spokesman, says these are the primary priorities of British Muslims right now.

“Gaza is among the top four issues for Muslims,” he said, with the others being the cost of living, the state of public services, and the future of the National Health Service. “A lot of Muslims not only use the NHS, they work in it,” he said.

According to Nanabawa, The Muslim Vote is not a partisan political organization.

“We say to people you are casting votes not just for a party, but for an individual,” he said.

The Muslim Vote argues that with the vast majority of Muslims in Britain living in 80 constituencies — almost all of them in London, the east and west Midlands, Greater Manchester and Lancashire, and west Yorkshire — they can have a clear impact.

“We will no longer tolerate being taken for granted. We are a powerful, united force of 4 million acting in unison,” reads the organization’s website.

Just how much of an impact Muslims can have — particularly when they are angered by an issue like Gaza — was highlighted by the Rochdale parliamentary by-election in March, when George Galloway, standing for the Workers Party, had a landslide victory after making his campaign about Gaza.

A similar trend was notable in the May local elections. According to Professor Will Jennings of Southampton University, there was an 18% drop in the Labour vote in areas where more than a fifth of people identified as Muslim, which led to the party losing control of Oldham Council in Greater Manchester and losing ground in Blackburn in Lancashire. The BBC said that — compared to 2021— Labour support among Muslims was down by 21% in 58 local council wards.

“We know that we’ve got a great deal of work to do to rebuild trust with Muslim communities,” said Ellie Reeves, a Labour MP and the party’s deputy national campaign coordinator.

At the time, Ali Milani, the national chair of the Labour Muslim Network, told The Guardian that “Muslims don’t think that the Labour Party broadly values Palestinian and Muslim lives as equal to others,” a view shaped by Labour’s record on a cease-fire in the Palestinian conflict.

In November, 56 Labour MPs defied their own party’s orders and voted for a Scottish National Party’s motion for a cease-fire. Then, in February, MPs approved a Labour motion calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” — but influential voices in the Muslim community remain unconvinced of Starmer’s commitment to a cease-fire.

The Muslim Vote website includes information for voters about constituency candidates and with some, recommendations for whom to vote for or against. No Conservative candidate has been recommended, says Nanabawa, “because they have destroyed infrastructure, the NHS, and young people cannot afford housing.”

Some Labour MPs are not recommended according to their track record on Gaza and on local issues, he said. In other seats, The Muslim Vote remains neutral. 

Among the seats where the Muslim electorate is substantial are Ilford North, where Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow secretary for health and social care, is defending his seat. Muslims make up 43.6% of the vote, according to the Henry Jackson Society. The Muslim Vote organization is urging people to vote instead for an independent candidate.

In Leicester South, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, faces a similar battle, where Muslims make up 37% of the vote and The Muslim Vote recommends another independent.

Meanwhile, polling of Christian voters suggests churchgoers in England and Wales are more likely to vote for centrist or left-wing parties. A Bible Society panel, consulted in the first weeks of June, showed 70% of those questioned said they would not vote for right-wing parties. Of them, 40% said they would vote Labour, while 23% of them said Liberal Democrat and 7% Green.

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