British Muslims and the 2024 Elections

British Muslims have been active in mainstream politics for many decades through advocacy work and electoral participation. Digital activism has been a noticeable catalyst in how political issues are represented and activated with campaigning platforms such as the Muslim Vote, who have identified parliamentary candidates sympathetic to community concerns. Other advocacy sites such as the Muslim Census has been tracking voting intentions and numerous social media sites have also are discussed the 2024 elections. Writer and human rights activist Arzu Merali notes that attempts to leverage British Muslims votes, have a long history that goes back to the mid-1990s. She reminds us that the organisations such as the IHRC collected data in the  Muslim Election campaign on which parliamentary seats Muslim voters could influence the outcome. In the era before widespread use of the internet, these concerns included; Islamophobia, free speech, ‘blasphemy’ laws, Islamic dress in schools, Palestine and Kashmir.

The 2003 war in Iraq was an important turning point in the relationship between Muslims and the Labour Party which they had traditionally supported as many Muslims were frustrated that the Labour government ignored the Stop the War demonstrations. There were efforts to encourage tactical voting in 2001 and 2005, with groups such as  Inminds and MPACUK trying to mobilise collective action. This was followed in later years by MEND  and now the Muslim Vote, which is at the forefront of these efforts. Keir Starmer’s now infamous radio interview which he appeared to suggest that Israel had the right to cut off power and water in Gaza, angered and energised Muslims who felt betrayed by the Labour Party and led to campaigns that resulted in the loss of Labour control of Oldham Council and victory of George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain in Rochdale. In the 2019 General Election, over 80% of Muslims voted Labour, however support from Muslim communities has recently dropped drastically as the 2024 election approached and this change is captured in WhatsApp groups which have been buzzing with debates about who to vote for and why Muslims should abandon Labour.

The online activist landscape has seen an articulation of the same concerns about Muslim political empowerment and some of advocacy groups such as the Community Policy Forum produced reports and pledges for prospective parliamentary candidates to consider. The Muslim Council of Britain similarly issued guidance on voting in the 2024 elections and The Muslim Vote website also has advice on criteria for candidates seeking to be elected. This is has been discussed in various online platforms such as the Thinking Muslim Podcast, Five Pillars Podcast, Middle East Eye and Islamic Human Rights Commission website.

The idea of a ‘Muslim Block Vote’, is contested in numerous quarters and is more a mobilisation strategy rather than a reflection of actual voting behaviour. This more fractious reality can also be detected from polling survey data and analysis that indicates local issues and loyalties influence political choices more than transnational Muslim causes.

The response to Muslim tactical voting from wider society has also been quite telling. Advocacy groups such as the MCB, demonstrated that attempts to co-ordinate a block Muslim vote and elect independent candidates, are framed by elements of the media as only a “Muslim issue” that are claimed to be ‘sectarian’, and led by ‘extremists’ and ‘anti-Semites’ trying to take advantage of British democracy to further communal interests.

Some younger British Muslims are hopeful that the election may usher in a new era of UK politics as the widespread activism for Gaza has shown. On the other hand, advocacy groups such as Cage are more pessimistic and argue that conventional wisdom about electoral politics needs to be rethought:

‘Elections offer us the choice between two factions of the same ruling establishment, while real power resides with big business, military and security elites, lobby groups, and the mainstream media, which significantly constrain the decisions of elected representatives. Our path to freeing Palestine and enacting real change lies in grassroots resistance, direct action, student encampments, digital activism, strategic legal actions, boycotts, and protests to name a few.’

The volatile dynamics sketched above also indicates a deeper unresolved issue. Can British Muslims really be expected to mobilise politically on religious interests? Despite many internal divisions – can they strategically unite to advance collective interests effectively like other minorities who have substantial political influence? Or are they likely to default to voting for the Labour party as they have generally done in the past and put pragmatic local concerns beyond principled objections to discriminatory domestic legislation and damaging foreign policy?