Thursday, April 08, 2010

british muslims & the general election

above: Respect leader Salma Yaqoob

British Muslims and the general election
Susannah Tarbush
Al-Hayat [in Arabic translation] 8 April 2010

Sajid Javid (40), the son of a bus driver who emigrated to Britain from Pakistan 50 years ago, has an excellent chance of becoming one of Britain’s first-ever Conservative Muslim MPs in the general election of 6 May.

Javid is standing as Conservative candidate in the constituency of Bromsgrove, which the outgoing Conservative MP Julie Kirkbride won in the 2005 election with nearly 52 per cent of the vote, far ahead of Labour’s 34 per cent.

Javid has a career as a high-flying banker. He became at the age of 24 the youngest-ever vice president in the history of Chase Manhattan Bank. In 2000 he moved to Deutsche Bank where he eventually became a senior managing director.

He has supported the Conservative Party for around 20 years since joining the student Conservative Association in his first week at Exeter University.

Another Muslim professional, lawyer Shabana Mahmood (29). is highly likely to become one of Britain’s first Muslim women MPs in the general election. She is standing for Labour in the constituency of Birmingham Ladywood. The former International Development Secretary Clare Short was re-elected as Labour MP for the constituency in 2005 with nearly 52 per cent of the vote, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 31.5 per cent. Birmingham Ladywood has a Muslim population of nearly 30 per cent.

Sajid Javid and Shabana Mahmood are examples of the way in which the younger generation of Britain’s community of up to 2 million Muslims is becoming increasingly involved in mainstream politics.

Muslims are still grossly underrepresented in the House of Commons. With Muslims forming up to 3.3 per cent of the British population of around 61 million, there should proportionately be up to 21 Muslim MPs. But there are actually only four Muslim MPs, all of them male, and all of them members of Labour.

It was only in the 1997 general election that the first Muslim MP, Muhammad Sarwar, was elected. He has now retired from parliament, and his 27-year-old dentist son Anas [pictured] is standing as the Labour candidate in his father’s constituency of Glasgow Central, Scotland. (Anas’s challengers include another young Muslim, Osama Saeed, who is standing for the Scottish National Party).

The 2001 election brought a second Muslim Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood, to parliament. In 2005 Sadiq Khan and Shahid Malik were also elected. Malik became the first-ever Muslim to serve as a minister when he was appointed as parliamentary undersecretary of state in the Department of International Development in 2007. Sadiq Khan was the first Muslim to be a member of the cabinet when he was promoted last year to Minister of State for Transport.

Muslims are of growing importance as candidates, and as voters. The votes of Muslims could be particularly important if the result of the election is as close as expected.

Until earlier this year it seemed inevitable that the Conservatives would win with a comfortable majority, but in opinion polls the margin between the two main parties has narrowed dramatically, with the Conservative Party’s lead over Labour dropping to only a few points.

Such a small difference between the two parties would produce a “hung parliament” in which no party would have an overall majority of seats.

There are currently several initiatives from within the Muslim community to get increasing numbers of Muslims to vote in the election. Only a few Muslim groups in Britain oppose voting in the election, claiming it is unIslamic. They include Hizb Ut-Tahrir, and the banned Muhajiroun group and its successors such as such as Islam4UK which was banned earlier this year.

James Brandon, head of research at the government-funded anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, told Al-Hayat: “It’s immensely encouraging to see the wide range of Muslim organisations that are calling on British Muslims to vote in the upcoming elections – from salafi-Wahhabi organisations to Islamists to secularists.”

Brandon added: “Although it is a shame that many of these groups are still calling on Muslims to vote along ethnic or religious lines, this increased enthusiasm for the elections is a welcome sign that Muslims are becoming more involved in the British political process – both as voters and increasingly as candidates.”
A new body, named YouElect, was set up recently in order “to encourage, inform and empower the Muslim community at the next general elections.” The co-ordinator of the project, Ismail Patel, says: “We aim to help make the election process easier by providing individuals with tools to make an informed decision when voting”.

The website of YouElect has the profiles of nearly 300 candidates in more than 90 constituencies of particular interest. It provides information for each constituency such as the results of the 2005 elections, the percentage of the population that is Muslim and the estimated number of Muslim voters. YouElect has also launched a drive for Muslim voter registration.

Other Muslim initiatives include the Get Out and Vote website, backed by a number of imams, and the Engage website which promotes greater media awareness, political participation and civic engagement amongst British Muslims.

The Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK) has launched Operation Muslim Vote. Members of MPACUK engage in direct action, travelling to target constituencies where they descend on mosques and Muslim centres, distribute leaflets and energetically debate.

MPACUK has a confrontational approach. Its website is like a tabloid newspaper, with vivid colours and screaming headlines. An article on the MPACUK website says: ”It’s election time, what type of Muslim idiot are you? Are you the ‘I am an idiot and too lazy to vote’ Muslim, the ‘I am an idiot and always vote Labour no matter how they treat us afterwards’ Muslim, or the ‘I am an idiot and I think I will go to hell by voting against a war’ Muslim?”

The Muslim community in Britain is diverse, in terms of the many countries of origin, type of Islam practised, and socio-economic factors and status. There is no overall “Muslim vote”. Muslim voters take a constellation of factors into account when deciding for whom to vote.

Traditionally, Muslims tended to support Labour, but this relationship was soured by the invasion of Iraq and other foreign policy factors, and by some of the anti-terror measures aimed at Muslims. But the Conservatives too supported the Iraq invasion, and are tough on issues such as immigration.

Anger over the Iraq invasion led some former Labour supporters to abandon Labour in the 2005 election, some voting instead for the Liberal Democrats. Other Muslim voters were attracted to the Respect Party, set up in 2004 as an anti-war party by a number of Muslim groups and the left, particularly the Socialist Workers Party.

Respect is the only party standing in the elections to have a leader who is a Muslim and a woman – the highly competent Salma Yaqoob. But Respect was weakened when it split in 2007, and it is significant in only a few constituencies

Salma Yaqoob scored an impressive result in the 2005 election when she stood for Respect in the constituency of Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath, the population of which was nearly 49 per cent Muslim. She came second to Labour, and slashed the majority of the Labour MP Roger Godsiff from 16,000 to just over 3,000.

After border changes of constituencies in Birmingham, Smallbrook no longer exists, and has been partly absorbed into the constituency of Birmingham Hall Green which is 35.7 per cent Muslim. Salma Yacoob is the Respect candidate there, again standing against Godsiff.

It is not unusual to find Muslims standing against each other as candidates for different parties. A striking example is the East London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow where four Muslim candidates are standing.

The former Labour MP George Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party for his strong opposition to the invasion of Iraq, won Bethnal Green and Bow for Respect in 2005, beating the Labour black Jewish MP Oona King by a small majority of 823 votes. He received strong support from the constituency’s more than 39 per cent Muslim population, mostly from Bangladesh.

Galloway is now standing as Respect candidate in the neighbouring constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, where he hopes to defeat the Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick. The Respect candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow is Abjol Miah, while Rushanara Ali is standing for Labour, Ajmal Masroor for the Liberal Democrats, and Farid Bakht for the Green Party.

If Rushnara Ali [pictured] wins the seat back for Labour, she will be part of an expected influx of several Labour Muslim women MPs, including Shabana Mahmoud who is standing in Birmingham Ladywood. The criminal lawyer Yasmin Qureshi is almost certain to be elected in Bolton South East where Labour had 57 per cent of the vote in 2005.

Maryam Khan is thought to have a good chance of keeping the seat of Bury North in Labour hands, while Sonia Klein may take back Ilford North which was lost to the Conservatives in 2005.

Although the Conservatives as yet have no Muslim MPs, the most high-profile Muslim woman politician in parliament is a Conservative. She is the unelected Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who was appointed by the conservatives to the House of Lords in 2007 so that she could become Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action.

The Conservatives have made considerable efforts to try to ensure that several Conservative Muslim MPs will be elected. Mohammed Amin, vice chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, told Al-Hayat: “So far 14 Muslim candidates have been chosen to stand for the Conservative Party in the coming general election of whom five are women. We may have three or four Conservative Muslim MPs if things go well.”

Conservative Muslim candidates considered to have a chance of capturing seats held by Labour include Rehman Chishti in Gillingham and Rainham, Zahid Iqbal in Bradford West, Alok Sharma in Reading West and Adeela Shafi in Bristol East.

The Liberal Democrats have 17 Muslim candidates, including four women. The party considers that it remains attractive to Muslim voters. A spokeswoman said: “In regards to relevant policy, it is clear that the Labour Party has failed those from the Muslim community. From harsh and unnecessary flaunting of civil liberties to the creation of unworkable and damaging programmes like the Prevent strategy.”

And yet none of the Liberal Democrat Muslim candidates is standing in a safe Liberal Democrat seat. The editor of the Muslim News newspaper Ahmed J Versi asked Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in an interview why his party had not selected Muslim candidates for winnable seats

Clegg answered: “You’re not right by saying that we don’t have candidates in strong seats: we have candidates in Walthamstow, in Luton, in Birmingham. We have candidates who are in very strong positions campaigning against a very unpopular Labour Party.”

But Clegg accepted that his parliamentary party is “too white, too male” and said he would be “delighted if more candidates from the Muslim communities put their names forward.”

Nadhim Zahawi

It is highly likely that the general election will see the election of the first-ever British MP of Middle Eastern origin. He is Iraqi Kurd Nadhim Zahawi who is standing as a Conservative candidate in the seat of Stratford-on-Avon,the birthplace of England’s greatest playwright and poet William Shakespeare.

Stratford is regarded as a safe Conservative seat. The outgoing MP John Maples won it with 49.2 per cent of the vote in the 2005 general election followed by the Liberal Democrats at 28.3 per cent.

Zahawi was born in Iraq in 1967 and grew up the county of East Sussex in Southern England. He was educated at Kings College School in Wimbledon, London, and at University College, part of London University. He also became a keen horse rider and show jumper, competing at numerous events.

In the past decade Zahawi has had extraordinary success with YouGov, the international internet-based market research firm which he launched in 2000 with Stephan Shakespear. YouGov was floated on the stock exchange in 2005 for £18 million Sterling and employs more than 400 people in three continents. Zahawi stood down as the company’s chief executive in February so as to devote himself to his election campaign.

When Al-Hayat asked Zahawi whether as an MP he will take a special interest in foreign affairs and the Middle East, given his background and his fluency in Arabic, he said that if he is invited to enter government, “I’ll serve wherever the leader wants me to.” For the present, his “absolute focus” is on the election and his constituency, and he has moved into a house in the centre of Stratford.

Zahawi was three times elected as a Conservative Councillor in the London Borough of Wandsworth, serving from 1994 to 2006, and stood as Conservative candidate at Erith and Thamesmead in 1997, coming second to Labour.

YouGov is best known in the minds of the British public for the political opinion polls it conducts for newspapers and TV stations. The polls are reputed to be particularly accurate. The company has expanded abroad, first into the Middle East where in 2006 it acquired Dubai-based Siraj Marketing Research and Consultancy. The hub of YouGovSiraj is Dubai, and it has offices in Riyadh and Jeddah and two big offices in Iraq. In March, YouGovSiraj signed a memorandum of understanding with the Jordanian research firm Analyseize to cooperate on joint projects. YouGov has also set up operations in Scandinavia, Central Europe and the United States.

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