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A New Force in British Politics

Article by Rob Blackhurst

September 15, 2006

For more than a century, the accents of immigrants have altered America’s international voice. American Germans lobbied the US to stay out of the First World War; Irish Americans pushed for a settlement in Northern Ireland; anti-Castro Cubans living in Florida have successfully resisted the lifting of the trade embargo on their home country since the 1960s; and no presidential candidate can write his foreign-policy manifesto without running it past the Jewish lobby.

In the early 1990s, Croatians residing in Germany bounced the government into recognising Croatia’s independence, with enormous consequences for the future of Yugoslavia. In Australia, the Greek population has stopped the government from accepting a Macedonian embassy.

In Europe now, it is Muslims who influence the foreign ministries. Jacques Chirac gave France’s Algerian population as a reason why he could not support the war in Iraq; the backing of Turkish Muslims propelled Gerhard Schroder to victory in Germany’s photo-finish 2002 election. Ariel Sharon’s warning this month that Jews should leave France because of the strength of Muslim groups is a mark of the power attributed to people seen until recently as politically marginal.

Are Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims also beginning to influence foreign policy? They have usually delivered sackfuls of Labour votes with few questions asked. At the 1997 election, more than 80 per cent of British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis voted Labour. Now, even allowing for the peculiarities of by-elections, this month’s results in Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill suggest that the party’s Muslim vote has collapsed.

Last year, according to the Muslim Association of Britain, a co-ordinated Muslim vote decided a British by-election for the first time, helping the Liberal Democrats to overturn a Labour majority of 13,000 in Brent East. MAB bussed in supporters. In Leicester South, which is 20 per cent Muslim, the Labour vote fell 70 per cent.

Muslims born in the UK (labelled Generation M by the pollsters) are rapidly changing political allegiance. In solidly Labour areas, the threat of deselection has hung over pro-war MPs. Oona King was saved by the union bloc vote in Bethnal Green and Bow, while Jack Straw faced a restive constituency party in Blackburn. As an Asian Labour peer told me: “If Labour thinks that Muslims support it as long as it visits mosques and the Prime Minister says that he reads the Koran, then they’ve got another thing coming.”

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.

But the Labour MP Keith Vaz, who supported the war and whose constituency borders Leicester South, says: “Iraq was the first instance of Muslims voting along foreign-policy lines in my 18 years in parliament. Even the problems of Kashmir, or the Rushdie affair, or Palestine, never translated into significant domestic votes.”

General election turnouts have fallen, but Muslims are now more likely than average to vote. Ahmed Versi, the editor of Muslim News, says that “the Muslim young are more likely to vote than their elders”. So voters who were once invisible have become an electoral prize, and the parties have responded accordingly. The Lib Dems have rebranded themselves as the “natural party” for Asian Britain, and George Galloway’s Respect party has pitched for the Muslim vote.

Given that neither of these parties will form the next government, has this clout been noticed where it matters – in Downing Street and the Foreign Office? The Iraq war aside – on which Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain says ministers “listen but do not hear” – Muslim pressure has brought low-key successes over the past decade. Sacranie claims the UN intervention to protect Muslims in Bosnia in the early 1990s as a success, and argues that Muslim pressure encouraged Tony Blair to push a solution to Palestine when the Bush administration had given up.

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.

Rob Blackhurst is editorial director of the Foreign Policy Centre.

Published in the New Statesman on Monday 26th July 2004

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