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In Batley and Spen, Muslims stayed loyal to Labour despite attempts to bait them

Muddassar Ahmed
July 14, 2021

Mudassar Ahmed examines the strategies used in the recent Batley and Spen by-election to court or dissuade Muslim voters rather than traditional Labour voters of all types, and argues the targeting of Muslim voters ignores some of the bread-and-butter issues that helped America's left make electoral gains in the 2020 elections.

Labour's victory in this month's Batley and Spen by-election may have surprised observers across the political spectrum, but none more so than those who predicted a loss for Labour based on one factor alone – the crass appeal for Muslim votes from former MP George Galloway. His sole aim was driving Labour Party leader Keir Starmer from power, even if it handed the seat to the Conservatives, who tore down enough of the red wall in 2019 to win an 80 seat majority in the House of Commons.

By a mere 323 votes, that did not happen. Kim Leadbeater secured her sister Jo Cox's former seat, who was murdered in the run up to the 2016 Brexit vote. Cox's murder foreshadowed the depths to which electoral forces could stir up resentment and even extremism, forces that appeared to resurface during this election campaign. Leadbeater herself was accosted in the streets, allegedly at the hands of some of Galloway's Muslim supporters incensed by her stand on LGBT education.

And yet, it failed. An attempt to sway the election on a populist wave aimed almost exclusively at the constituency's Muslim population, propelled by a tide of culture wars and single-issue appeals, missed the mark. Anecdotal evidence from those campaigning for Labour in the district, including neighbouring Labour MP Naz Shah – herself a victim of Galloway's electoral antics – showed a more nuanced and sophisticated Muslim electorate that possibly helped Labour get over the line.

More broadly, a recent poll found that, over the past two years, Muslim support for Labour – once so solid as to be taken fully for granted – has dropped by more than 10%. But this aligns largely with other traditionally Labour demographics that also diminished in the 2019 general election. In other words, a negative pan-Labour shift demanded a comprehensive restructuring of the Labour message. Instead, Muslims alone were targeted and, if a loss occurred, were set up to be blamed.

The assumptions behind this premise were steeped in bigotry. One absurd thesis pinned Muslim solidarity with Palestine – which is a real, genuine, and honourable – as the key issue driving Muslims away from Labour. Worse still was the notion that a crackdown on anti-Semitism caused them to flee. That accusation suggests Muslims are irredeemably anti-Semitic, itself a racist insinuation.

The truth is that many Muslims soured on Labour because of the same bread-and-butter issues that force traditional Labour constituencies to look elsewhere. To quote the American political analyst James Carville, who made his name on the Clinton campaign: "It's the economy, stupid." After all, consider who Labour's core constituencies were within the industrial North and the economic predicament many of them now face due to a collapsed manufacturing base. Muslim communities were part and parcel of this.

I say this as someone who once campaigned against Labour, partly because I thought then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to join America in invading Iraq was a terrible and dangerous one (I still do). Sixteen years later, I campaigned in Batley, but this time for Labour. While I believe the party has made major mistakes, Labour is a far better option than a Conservative, ever more rightward-leaning government, whose policies are stained by elitism, nativism, and outright Islamophobia. This makes it all the more disappointing that Labour has failed to mount a credible and effective opposition.

Labour has key questions it needs to answer. How does it articulate a new British economic outlook for the future? How does Keir Starmer gain the trust of those concerned about the loss of our manufacturing base? And how do we help people disrupted by COVID-19 and the failure of the government to prevent the surge of its Delta variant in the North?

Despite this victory, the lack of a compelling narrative about these issues ends up marginalising not only Muslims but working-class voters more broadly. Many feel left out by the fourth industrial revolution, and have embraced fringe parties or eschewed politics altogether. Others have done the previously unthinkable and voted Tory. With Conservatives in power over the past 10 years and little progress to show for it, the electorate should be Labour's for the (re)taking.

In America, Joe Biden has tilted sharply towards issues such as COVID-19 relief and further infrastructure investment that have proved popular not only with his party but with many Republicans too. He has also helped empower progressive voices by appointing antitrust activist Lina Khan as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with a bipartisan mandate to reform big tech. Biden's decision to go big instead of feeding the culture war has reaped dividends. But this required discipline, clarity, and serious ground game.

Before the 1st of July, the thinking was that if enough Muslims go for alternative political parties, a once solid Labour bloc will fragment, deliver still more power to the Conservatives, and perhaps mortally wound Labour in the process. Those Labour voters who were seduced by Galloway from the left to damage a perceived centrist leadership, much as UKIP pulled Tories to the right pre-Brexit, should look to Bernie Sanders and others across the pond who made peace with Biden's ascension and were rewarded in victory with more progressive policies than they ever expected.

Even as I worry that Labour has much work to do ahead of them, I feel this result shows they can rely on British Muslims to help reframe the Labour narrative. Look west again to the American example in November 2020. If some 7 out of 10 American Muslims had voted for marginal candidates instead of Joe Biden or simply stayed home, Donald Trump would still be in the White House.

What kind of future would we be facing then? Labour should ponder this question, the results of the Batley and Spen by-election, and consider its options carefully.


Muddassar Ahmed is the managing partner of Unitas Communications; a former UK Government independent advisor; and Chair of Bow Food Bank, one of the largest independent food banks in London.

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