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How Labour Alienated Muslim Voters

Taj Ali

Keir Starmer's party might have held Batley and Spen, but its approach to both domestic and foreign issues has turned away swathes of supporters in the Muslim community – as well as showing a total lack of moral fibre.

Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Muslim support for the Labour Party is falling. A poll of 504 British Muslims, carried out in mid-June by Survation on behalf of the Labour Muslim Network, found a net -12% drop in favourability for the Labour Party. The findings on support for the Labour leadership were even more damning: Keir Starmer has a net favourability rating of -7%.

Starmer’s potentially tenuous position and recent concern about different forms of prejudice among both major parties mean this was a subject of particular note in the lead-up to the Batley and Spen by-election. But this isn’t the first time many Muslims have felt disillusioned with the Labour Party. In fact, some of the most severe damage done to the relationship took place twenty years ago.

Tony Blair’s New Labour government adopted a neoconservative foreign policy stance that caused death and destruction in the Middle East, the legacy of which the region is still grappling with today. The illegal invasion of Iraq was, perhaps, the biggest foreign policy mistake in the post-war period: the disastrous war would lead to the deaths of nearly half a million people, and the use of depleted uranium bombs led to high incidence of birth defects, including among half of the babies born in Fallujah between the invasion and 2012.

In order to justify that mistake, Blair’s government relied heavily on fearmongering and the construction of a threat. Islamophobia became a political tool to achieve both domestic and foreign policy objectives, scapegoating Muslims for society’s various problems.

New Labour introduced domestic policies which undermined civil liberties and disproportionately targeted Muslims, framed as crucial to ‘national security’. A series of draconian pieces of legislation were passed which extended detention without trial and expanded surveillance powers, drastically increasing the powers of the police and intelligence services which had long been hostile to all minority groups.

Some of these processes had started well before the invasion of Iraq. In 2000, the Labour government passed the Terrorism Act, which expanded stop-and-search powers. In 2003, over 32,000 searches of ‘suspected terrorists’ were made, but less than one percent of those then arrested were actually charged with terrorism-related offences. Searches on Asian people between 2001 and 2003 increased by 300 percent.

The European Court of Human Rights later stated that the Terrorism Act attacked the right of individuals to privacy, and was both overused and misused. Similar observations have been made by human rights groups about the Prevent agenda, which New Labour set up in 2006, and which has been condemned for deliberately targeting British Muslims, particularly children.

In 2010, the newly-elected coalition government acknowledged the previous government’s counterterror legislation was ‘a significant source of grievance within the Muslim community’. They were right, but these were, of course, hollow words, and this government would build on New Labour’s authoritarian legacy by expanding the Prevent programme’s scope. By 2015, Cameron and Clegg had passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, and made Prevent statutory duty: public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, were now required by law to make referrals against ‘radicalisation’, often with inadequate guidance.

The destruction of the Middle East speaks for itself; domestically, too, these policies have fuelled far-right extremism by legitimising a racist narrative that characterises Muslims as the enemy within. Today, some centrists aim to rehabilitate Blair’s image and gloss over his foreign policy disasters, but many in the Middle East are still living with their consequences, and Blair rightly remains an extremely unpopular figure within the Muslim community. A return to Blairism and its associated policies—through, for example, bringing central Blairites back into the party’s core—will only further erode support.

In 2017, however, 85% of British Muslim voted for the Labour Party. Many attributed this widespread support to the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn with the Muslim community: Corbyn’s voting record stood in stark contrast to those associated with the Blair years, particularly on issues pertaining to foreign policy and civil liberties. He was known for his strong opposition to the Iraq War and his vocal support for Palestine; outside Parliament, he had served as chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

This longstanding commitment is markedly contrasted with Starmer’s team’s rush to plaster half-hearted concern about Kashmir, Palestine, and Tory Islamophobia over their campaign literature in Batley and Spen. After the equivocation evident since the start of Starmer’s leadership—stark in its contrast with the Corbyn years—it was inevitable that local Muslims would question this support’s authenticity.

Their scepticism has been fuelled by the actions of Keir Starmer himself. Last year, Starmer referred to the Kashmir crisis as a ‘bilateral issue’, abandoning the position of solidarity with Kashmiris under Corbyn. Starmer’s remarks caused outrage among Kashmiri communities in traditional Labour strongholds such as Birmingham, Bradford and, of course, Batley, and as a result, more than 100 British mosques threatened to boycott the party.

Then, in April this year, Starmer pulled out of the Ramadan Tent Project’s virtual fast-breaking event after he was made aware that its CEO, Omar Salha, supported the boycott of Israeli dates grown on illegal settlements in the West Bank. Salha’s position is not exactly niche: according to polling carried out by YouGov, 61 percent of Labour members support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and only eight percent oppose it.

Instead of addressing these valid concerns, commentators and senior Labour officials have resorted to smearing the Muslim community as bigots. A fortnight ago, a senior Labour official briefed the Daily Mail, a bastion of Islamophobia itself, that Muslim voters were being lost because Keir Starmer had taken a strong stance on antisemitism – an insult to the Muslim Labour members who have been committed to tackling all forms of bigotry for a very long time.

Meanwhile, a leaked internal party report last year found widespread anti-Black racism and Islamophobia from senior officials within the Labour party had gone unchallenged. Members of staff in the party’s policy unit had reportedly found it ‘difficult to disagree’ with Douglas Murray’s claim that parties were refusing to admit that terrorism comes from Islam, and said that ‘even so-called moderate Islam’ has ‘hard questions’ to answer about terrorism. The Forde Inquiry into this leaked report has since been kicked into the long grass.

In November 2020, the Labour Muslim Network released a report into Islamophobia within the Party. The report, which constituted the largest ever consultation of Muslim members and supporters of the Labour Party, found 29% of Muslim Labour members had suffered Islamophobia within the Party while 37% had witnessed it. 44% said Labour doesn’t take Islamophobia seriously, and more than half of those surveyed said they didn’t trust the Labour leadership to tackle it.

This should have been the wake-up call for the Labour leadership to take decisive action to win back the trust of Muslim Labour members and supporters – and not just because it serves them electorally, but because support for causes like Kashmir and Palestine is a moral imperative for any party framing itself as ‘progressive’. Six months on, though, it seems support for the Labour Party, and Keir Starmer in particular, has fallen even further.

The task for the Labour Party now is to rebuild its strained relationship, and not with just the Muslim community, but with all communities that have been neglected by the politicians meant to represent them. That won’t happen by sidelining Muslims and ignoring our concerns, and it certainly won’t happen by returning to the Blairite politics of the past.