What the media gets wrong about The Muslim Vote

The five independents opposed to Britain’s role in Gaza have a far broader appeal than commentators realise

July 10, 2024
Jeremy Corbyn and Andrew Feinstein (right)—both endorsed by The Muslim Vote—at the first national march for Palestine since the UK general election. Image: Milo Chandler / Alamy
Jeremy Corbyn and Andrew Feinstein (right)—both endorsed by The Muslim Vote—at the first national march for Palestine since the UK general election. Image: Milo Chandler / Alamy

In seventy years, only seven independent MPs had ever set foot in parliament. Then, last week, six were elected in one night. All but one were backed by The Muslim Vote (TMV), a campaign supporting alternative candidates opposed to Britain’s role in the war on Gaza. Though British Muslims have historically shown strong support for Labour, these wins were a clear expression of frustration with a party, and establishment, that had not listened to their concerns. Yes, Gaza was the movement’s catalyst—but TMV’s appeal is far broader than commentators realise.

As a volunteer-led grassroots organisation, TMV faced an asymmetrical competition with the major parties. Launched after the failure of the SNP’s motion backing a ceasefire in Gaza, the campaign had just five months to organise before the snap election was called. And yet, a third of its endorsed candidates won or came second in their constituencies. Labour lost former safe seats to candidates endorsed by the campaign, including in Dewsbury, Blackburn and Birmingham Perry Barr. 

In Islington North, despite exit polls saying it was too close to call, Jeremy Corbyn (also supported by TMV) won with a majority of 7000. And in Leicester South, health worker Shockat Adam ousted Jonathan Ashworth, who had been expected to join Labour’s new cabinet. Only the week before, Ashworth had faced criticism for his comments that Labour would “send… back” migrants “from countries like Bangladesh or wherever”. In his victory speech, Adam said the win was “an indication to those that have been in power for so long, that you cannot forget the people that you serve”.

But TMV had its vulnerabilities: the campaign says vote-splitting cost it seats. This showed most notably in Bethnal Green and Stepney, where Labour’s Rushanara Ali was re-elected despite facing large protests for her abstention from the Gaza ceasefire vote. Ali's majority was reduced by 95 per cent, but the opposition vote seemed split between smaller parties and Ajmal Masroor, a TMV-endorsed independent who has unsuccessfully run for parliament twice before. Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer who stood down to call for a unity candidate, expressed his frustration on Twitter and criticised Masroor’s promise of “29,000” supporters that failed to materialise.

Commentators have ignored the fact that successful candidates campaigned on local issues

In some seats, the margins were razor-sharp. Twenty-three-year-old Leanne Mohamed led an impressive campaign in Ilford North, nearly toppling Wes Streeting. Just weeks earlier, bookies had her odds at 200/1. On Friday, she lost with 15,119 votes to the now health secretary’s 15,647. At Saturday’s national march for Palestine, Mohamed celebrated what her campaign was able to achieve without the benefit of extensive funding or “party machinery”. 

They had proven, she said, that “elections can be fought on the basis of hope and not fear”. The results were revealing. Had some 300 voters chosen differently, Streeting would be out of a job.

But there were places where strategic campaigning overcame the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system. After 69 years of Labour in Birmingham Perry Barr, Ayoub Khan’s victory over MP Khalid Mahmood came as a shock. In Dewsbury, councillor Ammar Anwar had stood down a month earlier to avoid splitting the vote, instead making way for local engineer Iqbal Mohamed, who won twice as many votes as the Labour candidate. And, uniquely, despite two other independents running, lawyer Adnan Hussain won in Blackburn.

When I speak to TMV spokesperson Abubakr Nanabawa on Friday, it sounds like he’s had a sleepless night. Did TMV achieve their goal? “Absolutely”, he says. The campaign set out to prove parties could “no longer assume they would win the Muslim vote” and would instead have to “earn it”. Nanabawa says that Muslim voters have now proven they can’t be taken for granted, with some historically safe seats for Labour becoming marginals in the next election, and majorities slashed for key figures like Streeting, Jess Phillips and Rushanara Ali. Support for Labour in Keir Starmer’s own constituency has also nearly halved since 2019, with an 18 per cent swing to Jewish activist and TMV-endorsed candidate Andrew Feinstein. 

Not everybody is pleased. Shortly after the election results, a panicked Telegraph ran a piece called “The terrifying pro-Palestine campaign that hurt Labour—and threatens democracy”, and another: “Why the Muslim Vote campaign is a glimpse into a horrifying future”. Replete with Islamophobic tropes, the paper described TMV as creeping in “under cover of darkness”, glutting itself on Labour “blood”. 

Faisal Hanif from the Centre for Media Monitoring, a project of the Muslim Council of Britain, told Prospect that mainstream discourse is often “reductive”, presenting Muslims “as a danger to Britain and British democracy”. The framing around victorious candidates, he said, often revolved around “accusations of sectarianism and, as one news reader described Jon Ashworth's defeat in Leicester, because of ‘ethnic rivalries’”. Hanif identified a “hierarchy of racism” where it is assumed that “Muslims voting for issues important to them are somehow a danger and not integrated.” 

But pundits are wrong to caricature the reasons for the movement’s electoral success. Nanabawa instead calls TMV a “campaign of hope”, citing “messaging around protecting the NHS and upholding the human rights of people all across the world, including Gaza”.

Undoubtedly, strong feelings around Gaza—and the sense that both parties are complicit in the humanitarian catastrophe there—played a powerful role in unifying opposition votes. But commentators have disingenuously framed this as a religious issue, rather than a humanitarian one. They have also ignored the fact that successful candidates campaigned on local issues, attracting broad support beyond local Muslim voters.

In the end, Muslims did not vote homogenously. Many continued to vote for Labour, while TMV also notes high levels of Muslim support for the Lib Dems and Greens (both of which achieved record numbers of seats). Nor can the campaign claim all the credit for the popularity of independents – who notably performed well in areas with larger Muslim populations, even where TMV did not endorse an opposition candidate, such as Naz Shah’s seat in Bradford. The results show an organic shift away from traditional voting lines, shaped by local dynamics and individual policy preferences, a trend found across the British electorate.

We now know that Labour’s victory was not due to any particular enthusiasm for the party. What Adam and other independents did was to appeal to people dissatisfied with the options presented to them: to those who want stronger local representation, who are uninspired by “career politicians”, but are not attracted by right-wing populism. For these voters, Gaza was the issue that most starkly underscored the divide between politicians and the public. Dismissing this as “sectarian” will only strengthen the feeling that people are not being heard. 

When asked earlier this week what Labour would do to rebuild trust with British Muslims, Starmer’s response was dismissive, focusing instead on the “strong mandate” he had won. It may be up to the independents to assure Muslim voters that their concerns will be heard in Westminster.

As they enter parliament, Nanabawa hopes that each of these five MPs will act as a “powerful voice for their local community”. “They ran as independents to represent the people of their constituency without having the pressure of a whip”, he says, and they will be judged purely on their ability to advocate for constituents. “They have no one else to answer to”.