Labour won Batley and Spen, but it's losing the Muslim vote

Labour may have won Batley and Spen, but it's losing the Muslim vote
6 min read
02 Jul, 2021
Opinion: Recent polling suggests that the Labour Party is losing the support of Muslim constituents that it has relied upon - and for good reason, writes Taj Ali.
Labour's Kim Leadbeater (M) celebrates her narrow victory in the Batley and Spen by-election with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (L) on 2 July, 2021. [Getty]

For a quarter of a century, the parliamentary constituency of Batley and Spen has been considered a Labour stronghold. 

In 2017, the Labour Party won the seat with over 55% of the vote and a majority of 8,000. In 2019, this majority was slashed to around 3,500 and at yesterday's by-election, the seat was won with only 35% of the vote and a wafer-thin majority of 323.

The Labour Party is standing on shaky ground.

Since the 2019 General Election and the recent by-election defeat in Hartlepool, there has been considerable discussion about Labour losing support amongst white working-class voters in Britain. What has been missing from this discussion is the fact that Muslims have historically made up a significant part of Labour's traditional working-class heartlands, and support in these communities is wavering too.

Muslim voters in Batley and Spen

Muslim voters make up 20% of the constituency of Batley and Spen. Many have highlighted growing disillusionment within the Muslim community towards the Labour Party as an explanation for Labour's difficulties during the by-election campaign. 

 "It's not just the Muslims of Batley that feel alienated by the Labour Party"

When Labour has lost support among white working-class voters, political commentators and party officials have said, rightly, that the party must do more to engage with these voters and win back their trust. And yet when it comes to the Muslim voters of Batley, it seems that same courtesy has not been extended.

Instead, Muslim voters have been smeared as bigots and anti-semites. Two weeks ago, it emerged that a senior Labour party official had told the Daily Mail, which has its own atrocious record of Islamophobia, that Muslims were deserting the Labour Party because Keir Starmer was tackling anti-Semitism in the party.

This attempt to smear Muslims rather than engage with them is indicative of a culture within the party that seeks to sideline the concerns of British Muslims. This has led to growing disillusionment with the Labour Party as demonstrated by the collapse in Labour's vote share. 

And it's not just the Muslims of Batley that feel alienated by the Party.

In November, the Labour Muslim Network released a report on 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 Islamophobia in the party.

Perspectives

44% of Muslim Labour members said Labour does not take Islamophobia seriously, with more than half of those surveyed saying they did not trust the Labour leadership to tackle Islamophobia.

These findings should have spurred the Labour leadership into action to win back the trust of Muslim Labour members and supporters. But six months on, a new poll commissioned by the Labour Muslim Network found that support for the Labour Party, and Keir Starmer in particularly, had fallen even further.

37% said their view of Labour had become more unfavourable in the past 12 months, as opposed to 25% whose view of the party had become more favourable, creating a net 12% drop in favourability. 22% of British Muslims had a favourable attitude towards his leadership, while 29% were unfavourable, giving the Labour leader a net favourability of -7%.

"29% of Muslim Labour members had suffered Islamophobia within the Party while 37% had witnessed Islamophobia in the party"

When Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party, he demonstrated that the Labour Party could go much further in championing causes that many Muslims support such as the plight of the Palestinians and the Kashmiris

It is no coincidence that 86% of British Muslims voted for the Labour Party in 2019. Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, however, that support has started to crumble.

For years, we have been told that working-class voters do not care about issues like Kashmir and Palestine, and yet it was these causes that were plastered over Labour's leaflets in Batley and Spen. Despite this last-ditch attempt to appeal to Muslim voters, many instead opted for George Galloway, the Worker's Party candidate who has been historically vocal on these issues. 

Keir Starmer's unsatisfactory leadership

Labour's credibility over these issues was made worse by the actions of Keir Starmer himself, since being elected leader of the Labour Party last year.

Last year, Starmer referred to the Kashmir crisis as a "bilateral issue", seemingly abandoning a previous position under Corbyn, which expressed solidarity with the people of Kashmir. His remarks caused outrage amongst Kashmiri communities in traditional Labour strongholds such as Birmingham, Bradford, and Luton. More than 100 British mosques even threatened to boycott the Labour Party over the stance.

In April, Starmer was accused of undermining Muslims by Friends of Al-Aqsa, a UK-based Palestine advocacy organisation, after pulling out of an iftar during the month of Ramadan. Starmer pulled out of the Ramadan Tent Project's virtual fast-breaking event because the CEO had supported the boycott of Israeli dates. This led to significant backlash, with over 2,000 people signing a petition by Friends of Al-Aqsa which criticised the opposition leader for holding Muslims to different "standards".

This position put Starmer at odds with most Labour Party members. According to a recent Yougov poll, 61% of Labour members supported the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, while only 8% opposed it.

The recent onslaught on Gaza which led to the deaths of 256 Palestinians caused outrage across the Muslim world. Many expected Starmer to take a stronger stance on this issue. Instead, it recently emerged that UK Labour officials had blocked a discussion at a local party on sanctions against Israel, claiming the discussion could lead to "anti-Semitic behaviour".

"The Labour Party has a long way to go in order to win back the trust of the Muslim community"

Given these recent actions, it is no surprise that many Muslims feel alienated by the Labour Party. Many expect a stronger stance from the Labour leadership on these issues - and rightly so.

Let it not be forgotten that there was widespread disillusionment within the Muslim community towards the Labour Party prior to Corbyn. It was a Labour government that presided over the Iraq War and Afghanistan War. 

It was also a Labour government that introduced authoritarian legislation like the Prevent agenda which undermined the civil liberties of UK citizens, disproportionately targeting the Muslim community. It is abundantly clear that the Labour Party has a long way to go in order to win back the trust of the Muslim community.

Muslims, of course, do not only care about foreign policy issues and immigration. According to the most recent census, almost half of the Muslim population resides in the 10% most deprived areas in England. Muslims also experience the lowest earnings of any religious group in the country, earning £350 less each month than average. Like many other working-class communities, Muslims have suffered from a decade of austerity cuts to public services and been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Now is the time for the Labour Party to repair its relationship with the Muslim community, not just to save their seats, but to save their integrity. That means recognising Muslims as an integral part of its working-class heartlands and actively engaging with rather than smearing the Muslim community.

Taj Ali is a freelance writer and political activist based in Luton. He recently graduated from the University of Warwick with a BA in History and Politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @taj_ali1

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.