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UK election and the Muslim vote: Gaza ushers in a new era

For British Muslim voters, Gaza ushers in new era of UK politics
6 min read

Nadeine Asbali

21 June, 2024
Major UK parties have smeared British Muslim independents over their pro-Palestine campaigns. But they're more than one-trick ponies, writes Nadeine Asbali.
There seems to be an assumption that Muslim independent candidates have nothing to offer but a pro-Gaza stance, writes Nadeine Asbali [photo credit: Getty Images]

From Jeremy Corbyn’s independent campaign for his long-held constituency of Islington to Faiza Shaheen’s high-profile ejection from the candidacy of Chingford and Woodford Green, independent candidates have never been as politically relevant as they are now in the run-up to next month’s General Election on July 4.

This is especially true for Muslim voters who abandoned Labour in their masses for independent candidates and smaller parties in last month’s mayoral and local elections — with Labour’s vote share down by a third in some Muslim-majority areas. In Rochdale, which is 18% Muslim, Workers Party of Britain candidate George Galloway even achieved a staggering — albeit controversial — victory over the incumbent Labour Party, winning the seat with a 12,000 majority. 

With Muslim voters — and others —increasingly growing despondent with the main parties over their stance on Gaza, independent candidates have popped up across the country, battling with Labour and Conservative representatives to win over their constituencies and ultimately punish establishment politicians for their pro-genocide attitudes.

However, as is often the case when it comes to Muslims partaking in civil life, there has been an underlying dismissiveness — even ridicule — in much of the media coverage around these independent candidates. 

On one level, there seems to be an almost puritanical attitude by the mainstream media that dictates that individuals running without the backing of a large party machine are somehow lesser politicians or unqualified to become MPs.

We see this with the derogatory way independent candidates are often dismissed like Tiger Patel in Blackburn called a “taxi driver” or Leanne Mohamad in Ilford North repeatedly labelled an “activist”.

When a Labour or Conservative MP comes from humble roots — like Wes Streeting’s East London upbringing — this is often commended. However, when it comes to members of the community standing up against the two-party system and seeking to represent the constituency they come from, their “non-political” background seems to be warped into evidence of their inadequacy — especially if they happen to be Muslim and a vocal advocate for Palestine. 

Are British Muslims fighting over Gaza?

More ominously, though, there is a current of Islamophobia and racism that is skewing the portrayal of many independent candidates. Time and time again in the mainstream media, we see the label “pro-Palestinian” attributed to independent candidates as though to claim that not only is their politics extreme and Islamist in nature, but that their priorities don’t lie with the people of Britain — or even their own constituency — but with a foreign conflict instead.

After last month’s local elections, tabloid media ran a host of sensationalist headlines about “40 pro-Palestine activists” being elected into council seats — alongside alarmist and Islamophobic reporting of keffiyehs being worn, Palestine flags being waved and Gaza being mentioned in campaign materials. One Green Party councillor who, upon winning, declared “Allahu Akbar, this is for the people of Gaza”, was even investigated by his party and eventually forced to apologise after accusations of antisemitism from local Jewish groups and the rightwing media.

What’s more, there seems to be an assumption that Muslim independent candidates have nothing to offer but a pro-Gaza stance and that a vote for them will achieve nothing but a protest against the main parties.

We saw this after Akhmad Yakoob came third in the West Midlands mayoral vote last month where an unnamed Labour source claimed that Hamas were the “real winners” and accused Muslim voters of having more loyalty to the Middle East than their own constituencies. 

Of course, it is true that many independent candidates are running with Gaza at the forefront of their campaign. There are those running with the express intention of unseating Labour MPs who didn’t support a ceasefire earlier in the year — like Ajmal Masroor running against Rushanara Ali, Labour MP of Bethnal Green and Bow who abstained from supporting a ceasefire despite representing an overwhelmingly Muslim constituency.

In some cases, it even seems as though the heartfelt pro-Palestinian views of a community have been weaponised by candidates seeking to build a platform for themselves. In some constituencies, the pro-Palestine vote has begun to cannibalise each other, sowing disunity within communities and counterintuitively handing the vote to the very Labour candidate they are seeking to punish.

However, the presumption that Muslim independent candidates on the whole have nothing to offer beyond Gaza represents just how much of a stronghold our two-party electoral system has over our media and public imagination — and how embedded Islamophobia is in our society.

Take Leanne Mohamad of Ilford North who is running against Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting. She is often portrayed as nothing but a pro-Palestine activist, almost exclusively depicted in the media wearing a keffiyeh or alongside political allies like Jeremy Corbyn in order to signal that her politics is radical, extreme or somehow un-British. 

However, listening to Mohamad speak for even a matter of minutes it is clear that she understands the issues in her local community are far more complex and nuanced than simply offering an alternative to Labour’s pro-genocide position. She repeatedly references issues like street safety, housing and healthcare as pivotal issues on the doorstep and whilst Gaza has become the prism through which many of her potential voters now view politics, it isn’t the be-all and end-all of their needs as constituents.

Given that Muslims are disproportionately represented in the poorest areas with the worst health and education outcomes and higher rates of poverty and crime, these issues matter to Muslim voters as much as Gaza.

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Independent candidates like Leanne Mohamad have grown up in the communities they now seek to represent — unlike many Labour and Conservative MPs who are often dropped into a seat they might have barely heard of before appearing on the ballot. 

Perhaps if there’s anything remotely positive that can come out of months of heinous genocide greenlighted by our own political establishment, it can be that we usher in a new kind of politics in the UK. One in which normal people stand up to represent the views and demands of their own communities rather than seeing MPs parachuted into an area to toe the line of a party machine. 

A Labour victory is all but guaranteed next month, however, independent candidates remain our only hope to ensure that we have voices in the House of Commons that actually represent our values — and with a British population overwhelmingly in favour of ending the indiscriminate decimation of Gaza, the opportunity to break the political stronghold and see those views actually represented in parliament is reason enough to rally around our local independent candidates on July 4.

Nadeine Asbali is a freelance writer and secondary school teacher based in London. She is the author of Veiled Threat: On Being Visibly Muslim in Britain

Follow her on X: @nadeinewrites

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.