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.