Baroness Warsi has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. Photo: Getty
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The bitter truth: the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour

It won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from Baroness Warsi, a Tory politician.

I am from the Iraq War generation. I was 13 when 9/11 happened, and watched the War on Terror unfold throughout my teens. The viciousness of the Iraq War became synonymous with Tony Blair, and thus with the Labour Party. I was 17 in 2005, and I remember trying to convince my father, a first generation Bangladeshi migrant, to vote for anyone but Labour. He wouldn’t relent; Labour supported him when he first came to the United Kingdom, and that support won a lifetime of loyalty.

After Gordon Brown took office in 2007, I looked again at the Labour Party. The shadow of Iraq was still there, but I recognised the values Labour stood for at home – a welfare state, support for the poor, and a belief in the power of the collective. These all resonated with me and my personal ideals, shaped as they were by Islam. I voted for Labour in 2010, something I couldn’t imagine myself doing in 2005.

When the Conservative Party, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, took power, I was worried. This was the party of the white elite I had been told, racist to the very core, and bad news for the economy. In retrospect, I’ve had to face up to a bitter truth - the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour.

David Cameron has played his role as Prime Minister incredibly well, and is visibly more comfortable with religion than Ed Miliband or even Brown and Blair. “While I am Prime Minister of this country, halal is safe in Britain,” he announced to warm applause at the Muslim News Awards dinner. In an act of public relations genius, he popped in for a casual Nando’s in Bristol during the height of the halal hysteria, telling reporters later “I’m happy to eat halal meat”. On the wall of my local mosque is also a letter from the Prime Minister himself, congratulating Muslims on the beginning of Ramadan and highlighting the contribution of Muslim soldiers to the First World War. After the Woolwich murder, Cameron was equally clear in announcing the killings as “a betrayal of Islam”, stronger words than ever used by Blair, whose speeches on Islam while in office often blurred the line between religious conservatism and violent extremism.

On the other hand, Ed Miliband has had little success engaging with British Muslims. He called the Iraq War “wrong”, but has seldom discussed the issue since. His relationship to religion of any sort seems awkward at best – he announced a desire to become Britain’s first Jewish Prime Minister, while also proclaiming himself an atheist, and having images of him biting into a bacon sandwich slathered over the internet. He has made some efforts to connect to a British Muslim demographic however, most recently with an Eid reception on the 31 July that was described by one attendee as “naff”.

What does stand to Miliband’s credit amongst many British Muslims is taking a strong position on Gaza – an issue incredibly close to the heart of many Muslims. Yet even here, he has been outdone by a Conservative. Baroness Warsi’s resignation may have harmed the Tories in the run up to an election, but in the past four years she has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. She has campaigned against Islamophobia, balanced out Michael Gove’s ideological opposition to Islam, and even publicly challenged the white, Eton-dominated elite of the party. And it won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from a Tory politician.

It isn’t too late for Labour however. Ultimately, most of Cameron’s success with Muslim voters has been on superficial issues. A powerful antidote to this will be through a commitment to the values that made Labour successful amongst my father’s generation– namely the welfare state, opposing racist anti-immigration rhetoric and supporting ethnic minority candidates. Mayor Luftur Rahman’s success in Tower Hamlets is an example of all three. Yet all this isn’t enough. Iraq is not something which is confined to history but is absolutely contemporary. ISIS’s rise today in cities like Mosul is a result of the Iraq War; George Galloway is still riding a wave of anti-war sentiment as MP in Bradford. If Miliband is to win back the Iraq War generation, and truly free himself from the Blair legacy, he must condemn the War on Terror entirely and make penance for the sins of New Labour.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.