Mistaken assumptions of loyalty

Rageh examines the assumption that British Muslims are likely to vote Labour

It has been assumed, for as long as I can remember, that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims are Labour voters. Electoral statistics and polls have borne this out in the past. More curious is the cultural presumption within the Labour movement that, come hell or high water, British Muslims, and especially those of Asian or African descent, could never support any other party.

I rarely report on UK politics, working usually in the Middle East and Africa. However, on those rare occasions when I cover issues closer to home, I am amazed that new Labour officials consider any brown or black British Muslim who walks into the room as "one of us". It reminds me of the quip about (old) Labour across swaths of Wales - you could put a donkey up as prospective candidate and still be assured of victory.

All this was before Iraq. Now all previous assumptions have been shattered. It would be wrong to ascribe the rift solely to the war, but it has been the starting point in the unravelling of what had been broad and instinctive support for new Labour among British Muslims.

In true new Labour style, Jack Straw's comments about his female constituents and the veil were timed to emerge a day before Tony Blair's monthly press conference, where he, too, added his thoughts. Around the same time, the Home Secretary, John Reid, was lecturing Muslim parents about monitoring the views of their children. At this point, Blair's government turned a corner. Ministers seem to have concluded that British Muslims are a lost cause. Besides, they're pretty marginal in terms of winning seats.

Set against that, issues such as the veil and integration are good populist fodder. They have played well not just in the tabloids, but also in broadsheets. New Labour never misses a trick in seeking to court the media.

Faced with a choice between chasing the many voters who are frightened about the violence of a tiny number of Islamists, or trying to regain the trust of a small minority, there was only one direction new Labour was going to go.

And yet, are things about to change? Remarks in recent days by Ed Balls, the economic secretary to the Treasury and Gordon Brown's close political ally - that Britain should have done more to win the "hearts and minds" of Britain's Muslims since the 11 September 2001 attacks - have met with incredulity from many Muslims in this country, incredulity of a kind with which a man dying of thirst in the desert might greet the sight of an oasis: "Can this be real? Is this really happening, after we'd so nearly given up hope?"

Balls said something else that British Muslims have been dying to hear from the lips of Labour politicians: that we cannot fight this joint struggle against extremism by security and military measures alone.

His remarks came in the same week as a speech from Blair in which the Prime Minister warned of a generational struggle against terrorism, and made clear that other military interventions would be essential in the future.

It might be tempting, therefore, to speculate that life might change for Britain's Muslims with Gordon Brown in charge of the government. I am not so sure.

Perhaps the most startling and, in some ways, the most courageous point Balls made was that the government "should have done more at an earlier stage to fight the cultural war", in tandem with the military and security measures it used to combat violent Islamist groups.

The Chancellor has dropped several hints that he would approach the so-called war on terror differently. It is important to remember, however, that so far the signs of change are still only changes in language. But you have to start somewhere.

For many Muslims in this country, anything - a government under Brown, or even under David Cameron - anything would be better than the way things have been. The last few months of Blair's premiership cannot pass by quickly enough for many British Muslims.

Even if a Brown government does not produce significant changes in UK policy over Iraq, even if it proves no less enslaved to the Bush administration's foreign-policy priorities, there are signs of hope that Brown may at least desist from flirting with the kind of populist and, at times, ugly language about Islam and integration that Blair has often indulged in.

If for this reason alone, British Muslims are clutching at the faint hope of a new beginning with new Labour.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics