Sunday, August 22, 2004
Organising the Muslim Vote

The Left, from the political centre through to the extremes, has noted the importance of the Iraqi war for the Muslims in constituencies where they provide a 'swing' vote. All three parties of the Left, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Respect have taken steps to woo this voting bloc. As yet, only Respect has moved from attracting this vote to establishing an institutional coalition with a pre-existing organisation, the Muslim Association of Britain. Is it too long before the mainstream Left allows the establishment of Muslim organisations within its structures as affiliated groups, or perhaps internal structures, reminiscent of the debate in the 1980s on potential 'black sections' in the Labour Party?

Rob Blackhurst, of the Foreign Policy Centre, a left-wing pro-European think-tank, wrote an article in the New Statesman, examining the potential influence of Muslims on foreign policy. The evidence of polling demonstrates that the 'war on terror', and its outcome, the Iraqi campaign, has accelerated the politicisation of British Muslims, especially the younger generation:

ICM polling last year showed that, unlike white Britons, Muslims list international issues as their highest priority. More than 79 per cent said they were "very concerned" about the dispute in Kashmir, a higher score than for either education or health. In Birmingham, home of the world's biggest expatriate Kashmiri community, two city councillors were elected in 2003 from the single-issue People's Justice Party, demanding that the government exert stronger pressure on India.

Events have propelled the Muslims towards demonstrating their dissatisfaction with government policy through the ballot box. Although Muslims of British origin have turned up in various flashpoints as terrorists, they remain a minority of a minority amongst the Muslim community, the vast majority of whom express their grievances as a protest vote. Blackhurst argues that this is a potential reservoir of support for the Left, citing examples where foreign policy is used as a tool to maintain electoral support amongst immigrant communities. Furthermore, he proposes a campaigning group for Muslims, specifically to counterbalance pro-Israeli groups, associated with New Labour:

However, Muslims still lack formal structures. The new lobbying group Muslims for Labour, set up as an attempt to counter-balance Labour Friends of Israel, lacks the latter's influence and its status as a favoured club for young Blairites.

Although a specifically Muslim party would have no chance in a first-past-the-post system, some Muslims favour a campaigning group on foreign-policy issues more willing to bare its teeth than the consensual Muslim Council of Britain. This could work, as foreign policy remains a low priority for most non-Muslim voters. A good analogy is with Cubans in Florida and New Jersey: though most Americans say they favour lifting the embargo, the Cubans prevail because they feel more strongly about it and are willing to switch their votes on the issue.

The difficulty here is to co-ordinate the demands: Britain has Muslims of 56 different original nationalities, and who speak more than 100 languages. The most effective route may be to lobby non-Muslims around limited aims. Just as the pro-Israeli lobby in the US remains influential because many non-Jews identify strongly with Israel, so many Britons share Muslim views about the recklessness of war in Iraq and the dangers of unilateralism.

The emergent agenda in this article is an alliance between Old Labour and the Muslim vote that would undermine the Atlanticist and (implicitly Zionist) approach of Blairism. Blackhurst has set out the possible preconditions for a left-wing, Arabist and pro-European British foreign policy, institutionally supported by Muslim and Labour alike. It is difficult to compare these objectives with other countries but the arguments are guided by the examples of France and Germany in the run-up to the Iraq war, although the underlying arithmetic is electoral (not ideological or geopolitical, as in the case of France).

The one question that Blackhurst does not ask and yet, is implicit in this alliance: how do you react to Muslim demands in domestic policy; demands that are reactionary from the 'progressive' stance of the Left?

(21.19, 22nd August 2004)


Post a Comment

Blog Archive