What do we want? Clean streets

Shiraz Maher on the Muslim vote in London

Several Muslim groups took the unprecedented step this month of endorsing Ken Livingstone's campaign for re-election as Mayor of London, publishing a statement on the Guardian's website. The signatories told Muslim voters that doing so serves their "best interests".

"His stands and policies have constantly championed justice in the Middle East and around the world, freedom for the Palestinians and withdrawal of occupying troops from Iraq, a rare trait of modern-day public figures," reads the letter.

Herein lies a problem. An investigation by the Centre for Social Cohesion found that just under half of the letter's signatories represented just two pressure groups: the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).

Livingstone's association with both the MCB and the MAB has repeatedly caused controversy during his mayoralty because of the groups' focus on grievances abroad and their support for radical Islamist clerics. In 2004, he caused uproar by inviting to London the Egyptian-born imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a man who has opposed women's rights, encouraged the killing of homosexuals and supported suicide bombings in Israel.

Yet an Ipsos MORI poll released by Livingstone last November revealed that Muslims in the capital consider crime reduction, clean streets, education and affordable housing as their primary concerns - issues far removed from Palestine and Iraq.

And those are precisely the kinds of issues on which Livingstone has failed to engage ordinary Muslims. By pandering to the Arab-centric agendas of pressure groups, many of which are based outside London, he has consistently failed to represent the very constituency whose cause he claims to champion.

Livingstone's view that Muslims are more concerned with events abroad than with ordinary social issues is encouraged by the MCB and MAB, whose influence over the mayor's office remains strong.

The attempt to mobilise a Muslim vote in response to an Islamist agenda is not without precedent. In 2005, groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and the MAB tried to turn the entire general election into a referendum on Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq.

When the results were announced, it was clear that the attempt to influence the Muslim vote had failed. In Blackburn, a constituency with a large Muslim population, Jack Straw was returned to parliament with ease. A similar pattern emerged nationally, George Galloway's victory in Bethnal Green and Bow being the only notable exception. Even there, it is too easy to suggest that Iraq was the sole reason behind Oona King's defeat.

As Livingstone's own polling has shown, London's Muslims are, like any other community, concerned mainly with the kinds of social issues that affect us all. And, given that so many of them live in some of the most deprived wards in Britain, why should they not be?

But while the mayor continues to have his views shaped by pressure groups, that is not something he is likely to appreciate any time soon.

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism