Labour’s lesson in Batley: Treasure the Muslim vote

'It is hard not to trace the apparent desertion en masse of British Muslims from Labour to the party’s lethargic attitude to Muslims and their concerns since Starmer’s election victory. '

Hamza Ali Shah is a British Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London.

The Labour Party’s fortunes of late have been a painful tale of abandonment. Less than two months ago in the Hartlepool by-election the party was on the receiving end of a historic defeat as the Conservative Party secured the seat for the first time since the constituency was formed in 1974.

Thursday’s Batley and Spen by-election almost played out in the same tormenting pattern. Going into the by-election Labour had a majority of 3,525 and the seat had been in comfortable Labour hands since 1997.

Sir Keir Starmer narrowly avoided making history for all the wrong reasons, as a loss would have meant the governing party securing two by-election victories in the same term, for the first time since 1929. 

However, that the party retained the seat but the majority was reduced to a slender 323 in a hotly contested race should set alarm bells ringing in the Labour Party.

Batley and Spen is one of the top 15 seats in the electoral map where Muslim voters have a high impact. The notoriously opportunistic George Galloway, founder and leader of the Workers Party of Britain, threw his hat in the ring with the unambiguous message that he is “standing against Keir Starmer”.  This apace with the repeated accusation from the Muslim locals that Labour had taken their vote for granted, created the perfect petri dish for political abandonment to grow.

Galloway pledged to make Palestine and Kashmir – two sensitive topics within the Muslim community – central to his campaign. Two matters which incidentally, the Labour leadership displayed a bewildering dereliction of duty towards. 

One of the first things Starmer did as leader was declare Kashmir a “bilateral issue” for India and Pakistan to resolve, ergo abandoning the previous leadership’s support for Kashmiri self-determination. 

Then as Israel expelled Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem and pummelled Gaza, Starmer’s response was tepid.

However, last month Starmer did bring up the issue of Palestine in Parliament during prime ministers’ questions, for the first time since his election as leader. Muslim voters saw through the desperation. “It’s too late for that, the damage was done long ago”, said one local businessperson. 

Galloway secured 8,264 votes and seemingly fell short of his ultimate ambition. But his presence was synonymous with Labour’s lowest ever vote share in Batley and Spen, illustrating that the extent of Muslim voters’ unhappiness has reached the point where they are not afraid to find alternative political options.

Importantly, the sense of disgruntlement among Muslims is not just limited to Batley and Spen. A recent poll showed 37% of British Muslims said their view of Labour had become more unfavourable in the past 12 months. 

When compared to the approximately 85% of Muslims who voted for Labour in 2017 under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn, it suggests support for the party is dramatically falling.

It is hard not to trace the apparent desertion en masse of British Muslims from Labour to the party’s lethargic attitude to Muslims and their concerns since Starmer’s election victory. 

Perhaps the most alarming is Starmer’s failure to properly address Islamophobia within the party. TheLabour Muslim Network last year published a devastating report showing that 29 percent of Muslim Labour members and supporters have experienced Islamophobia in the party, while more than a third have witnessed it.

Not only did the leader, deputy leader and general secretary offer a bland and insincere statement in response, the party has since only compounded the mistrust among the Muslim demographic. This was palpable when a senior anonymous official claimed Labour was haemorrhaging Muslim support because of the leader’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism, in what was described as ‘vile’ Islamophobia.

Seemingly, Starmer’s zero-tolerance to racism does not extend to Islamophobia.

That Labour made a hairbreadth escape from a political earthquake is cause for concern, not celebration. British Muslims have sent a resounding message to the Labour Party that their vote will not be taken for granted, and with Muslim voters making up an estimated 10% or more of voters in 83 parliamentary seats, future electoral scares are not inconceivable.

Starmer’s team need to recognise that another brick of the wobbly Labour wall is about to give way unless they wake up.

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