General Election 2024

Can the Muslim Vote campaign succeed?

By backing alternative candidates, the movement is seeking to eat into Starmer’s majority—and transform British politics

June 15, 2024
Leanne Mohamad and volunteers in Ilford North. Image: Arian Chowdhury
Leanne Mohamad and volunteers in Ilford North. Image: Arian Chowdhury

“A disturbing plot to make 55 MPs the HONOURABLE MEMBERS FOR PALESTINE,” screamed the Scottish Mail on Sunday. Its subject was the Muslim Vote campaign (TMV), which launched last December after the SNP’s motion to back a ceasefire in Gaza failed. The volunteer-led collective, formed of professionals, businesses and NGOs across the country, is mobilising Britain’s four million Muslims at the grassroots, with the aim of securing victories for pro-Palestine MPs at the election. Despite being met by a hostile media, with just weeks until polling day, TMV continues to pose a threat to Keir Starmer’s expected margin of victory.

Out of 543 seats, the campaign believes that there are almost 100 where Muslim voters can sway the outcome. Most of these are Conservative-Labour marginals, but there are more than 25 constituencies where a unified Muslim vote could determine who the MP is, beyond the two main parties.

Among the more prominent seats up for grabs is the one currently held by Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary. But will TMV really be able to unseat key Labour figures?

The Muslim Vote summarises its values as “pro-democracy, anti-genocide”. It has three main priorities, says spokesperson Abubakr Nanabawa. First is pressuring the government to have an “ethical foreign policy, including full support for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and sanctions on the Israeli government.” 

The second priority is “protection of civil liberties for people across the country”, including the right to protest and assemble. He notes the “attempts to vilify and attack those who protest in London or have been involved in the student encampments.”

Finally, “investment in the poorest communities across the UK”, including measures to address poverty, the NHS and affordable housing in light of the cost-of-living crisis.

TMV is especially focusing on the 55 constituencies with a Muslim electorate over 10 per cent, where an MP abstained or voted against backing a ceasefire in Gaza. Based on feedback from local communities, they are endorsing independent and third-party challengers in these areas.

On a Sunday afternoon, Leanne Mohamad, an independent candidate for Ilford North, is out canvassing in Barkingside with a team of volunteers. Muslims here seem to like her because she’s Palestinian. Non-Muslims like her because she’s local.

That morning, she was at a vigil outside Hainault tube station for Daniel Anjorin, the fourteen-year-old killed in a sword attack in April. Hundreds of mourners laid flowers and lit candles, an act of collective grieving. But one absence was noted: where was Wes?

Perhaps preoccupied by commitments in Westminster, Streeting is “locally invisible”, Mohamad says. After the attack, Streeting issued a statement to the press, but he faced the cameras solo.

Constituents are worried about crime and the NHS (Streeting’s thoughts on using the private sector are unpopular, a local GP tells me). And now, Gaza.

Elected by locals at a community hustings, Mohamad seems the picture of a model citizen: the youth worker, local library and food bank volunteer, runner-up for a Young Citizen award for services during the pandemic. But she is best known for her pro-Palestinian activism.

Her grandparents were expelled from their homes by Zionist militias during the 1948 war which displaced 700,000 people. Referred to as the Nakba by Palestinians— Arabic for "catastrophe"—this ethnic cleansing of Palestinians paved the way for the founding of Israel. At the time, Mohamad’s paternal grandmother was only a child: she was raised, married and gave birth in a refugee camp in Lebanon, where she still lives. “She’s the one who taught me resilience,” Mohamad says. Her grandfather passed away in the camp 20 years ago, without returning to his homeland. In 2016, Mohamad’s one-year-old cousin died after relatives struggled to access medical treatment in Gaza. 

Now she’s positioning herself as a voice for Ilford North. But being a progressive woman from an ethnic minority can prove challenging in politics (look no further than Diane Abbott and now Faiza Shaheen in nearby Chingford). At just 15 years old, she received a barrage of appalling abuse for giving a pro-Palestine speech at Jack Petchy’s "Speak Out" competition. Now, volunteers recount instances of residents taking one glance at the headscarf on her campaign leaflet and slamming the door.

Some supporters like that Mohamad is different—a fresh face in politics. Others just want to see Wes Streeting chastened.

“I want Wes Streeting gone”, declares one man we meet during Mohamad’s door-knocking, who usually votes Tory. He is also upset about Streeting’s lack of response to Gaza. He’ll vote for Mohamad this time, he says, but he doesn’t think she’ll win. She reassures him that they have the numbers: “I’m not standing to waste my time!” 

As a result of recent boundary changes, Streeting’s constituency has gained thousands of Muslim voters, including Mohamad herself. She jokes, “he didn’t see me coming”. Also supporting Mohamad is We Deserve Better, another grassroots movement supporting Green and independent candidates, which has found a voice in columnist and ex-Labour supporter Owen Jones (its slogan is “The Tories are toast, let’s send Labour a message”).

Later, over pizza and biryani in a community hall, Mohamad addresses the volunteers who have been canvassing with her. “We are not standing to make a statement, we are not standing for a protest vote, we’re standing to win this,” she says.

The choice of pronoun is telling: Mohamad’s supporters think it is that “we” that differentiates her from Streeting. When 15-year-old Leanne was the target of hate speech, the community rallied around her. Almost a decade later, they could do so again. “My story started in Ilford; my activism journey began here. And that’s where I’m trying to continue it,” she says.

Meanwhile, some locals tell me they think their MP “wants to follow in Keir’s footsteps”, using descriptors like “ambitious”, “media-savvy” and “career politician”. A Muslim resident voices the desire to deliver “a Michael Portillo moment,” to Streeting, “I think that would send a very important message”. Young and ambitious Portillo was once fronted as a future prime minister, before he lost his seat in a shock defeat, heralding the backlash against the Conservatives in 1997.

Having won only by a small margin at the last election, Streeting is vulnerable. In response to Mohamad's challenge, a peer in the House of Lords is reported to have remarked, “Wes must be shitting himself”. Wes Streeting did not respond to request to comment.

One of the biggest challenges that TMV will face is that more than one alternative candidate can easily split the vote. Last month, George Galloway was persuaded to stand down the Workers Party of Britain candidate in Ilford North to endorse Leanne Mohamad. And a similar phenomenon is now happening in Bethnal Green, where defence solicitor Tasnime Akunjee was until recently seen as the frontrunner to challenge Labour’s Rushanara Ali.

In 2010, Ali became the first British Bangladeshi elected to Parliament. But Labour’s positions on Gaza appear to have damaged her popularity. Despite emphasising to constituents in an email that she has “long supported a ceasefire and [had] been publicly calling for one since October 2023”, Ali abstained from November’s ceasefire vote.

There were protests outside her office, with constituents chanting “vote her out”. Some four hundred students also marched to the Labour HQ in Tower Hamlets, taking part in a school strike. Ali posted a statement on X defending her decision to remain a “loud voice” in the Shadow Cabinet, rather than risking it “for a symbolic measure”.  At the time, Akunjee challenged Ali for being “driven more by Labour Party policy than the will of the people she represents.”

Soon after, though, tensions rose after another pro-Gaza independent was selected by a community coalition, threatening to split the vote. After a mediation process, Akunjee stepped down. If TMV is to succeed in target seats, it will need to create a unified opposition. “We must not lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve,” Akunjee said, in a video announcing his support for Ajmal Masroor, the broadcaster and imam chosen by the Tower Hamlets Community Coalition.

Masroor has run for parliament twice already, in 2010 as a Lib Dem and then in 2017 as an independent. When I ask him why he has made Gaza the sole focus of his campaign this time—the “make or break”—he replies simply “because it is”. He calls Gaza “the biggest moral question of our time”.

Masroor feels that Bethnal Green has been “loyal” to the Labour party, but that it has been “betrayed”. Locals, he claims, feel an “affinity to global justice”, having “lived through poverty, racism, discrimination”—and for a while saw Labour as the party most aligned with their values. But now, “there is a disconnect between the politicians and the public,” he says.

Adila, a 24-year-old who lives in Ali’s constituency, says that there is “a lot of anger towards Labour” in the community. If that anger becomes a united movement to oust Ali, it would not be the first time a Labour MP has fallen from grace in the area as a result of party policy: in 2005, Oona King was defeated over her support for the Iraq War. Despite seeing a cultural similarity between herself and Ali, Adila tells me “I wouldn’t say that I feel represented.” But she thinks some community elders still like the “familiarity” of Labour, while others could be drawn by Lib Dem Rabina Khan—and votes split between candidates would push Ali to victory.

Beyond Ilford and Bethnal Green, Gaza has impacted voters’ trust in Labour. In January, the Labour Muslim Network (LMN) commissioned a poll which showed that Muslim support for Labour had fallen by a third. In the five months since, the collapse of the Gazan healthcare system, continued civilian killings and widespread man-made starvation are likely to have further affected support. According to other polling, as of last month, the majority of Britons support a UK ban on arms sales to Israel, and seven in 10 people support a ceasefire.

Party spokespeople have maintained that Labour is “committed to a strong relationship with the Muslim community”. But for many, it is too late. Despite Starmer warning Netanyahu last month that an offensive in Rafah “must not go ahead”, many haven’t forgotten that in October the Labour leader appeared to suggest that Israel had the “right” to withhold power and water from Palestinian citizens, or that a senior Labour source reportedly referred to Muslim councillors subsequently leaving the party as “shaking off the fleas”. The party’s decision to parachute controversial pro-Israel candidate Luke Akehurst into a safe seat, while purging left-wing Faiza Shaheen in a brutal last-minute deselection hasn’t helped to restore confidence. Shaheen, now running as an independent, has been endorsed by TMV.

Independents now have an opportunity to tap into the frustrations of those who feel alienated by both main parties. But getting them elected is notoriously difficult (there have only been seven such MPs since 1950): the UK's winner-takes-all system funnels votes towards incumbents, and independents do not have the benefit of party resources, like funding or data. In this snap election, with less time to campaign or fundraise, candidates will have it even harder.

So, what would The Muslim Vote consider success in this election?

The campaign cannot stop the war on Gaza. Nor can it suddenly reshape the two-party system. Instead, success is ultimately about “providing an alternative to Muslim voters across the country,” and “building a long-term infrastructure where Muslims become more actively engaged with the political system.”

In the short-term, it means maximising Muslim voter turnout in July, alternative candidates winning (or coming close) in as many seats as possible, and signalling to Labour that it “cannot continue being a party that refuses to call out genocide, a party that refuses to engage with communities, a party that refuses to provide real answers to the challenges that we are facing in this country.”

On a national scale, for the first time, British Muslims are looking to consciously vote as a bloc. And Gaza has created a sense of unity hard to find elsewhere. Candidates stepping down to prevent vote splitting, in Dewsbury as well as in Bethnal Green, have been praised online as rare displays of political integrity. In February, 85 per cent of Muslims said that British political leaders’ positions on Gaza would be important in determining how they vote at the next election. Only 2 per cent of respondents to the LMN survey said it wouldn’t be a factor “at all”.

With voters struggling with domestic problems, many will question the wisdom of candidates seemingly campaigning on a single-issue ticket. But Gaza is a “clear red line”, says Nanabawa.

“If a government or an opposition party does not have the bravery, foresight or the morality to speak up and take action to prevent an ongoing genocide, then how can we trust that same government to take care of the poorest and the weakest in our society?” 

Nanabawa thinks Labour will still win the election—but not “due to any love for the Labour party”. Instead, “out of disdain for the Conservatives.”

One of the lasting transformations may come from the fact that the campaign has exposed a paradox in British society. The British Muslim community has often been characterised by the right wing press as anti-democratic and backward. But now that Muslims are engaging with the system more visibly, their peaceful protesters are “mobs”, their campaigning is a “plot” and their candidacy “infiltration”. 

In February, on a panel at the US Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac), Reform leader Nigel Farage claimed that “radical Islam is becoming mainstream in British politics.” And by 2029, he prophesises “a radical Islamic party represented in Westminster.” A startling prediction, but also a fanciful one. TMV is the closest “mainstream” campaign to Farage’s description, and half of its endorsed candidates are not even Muslim (its highest-profile challenger, against Keir Starmer in Holborn, is Jewish activist and former South African MP Andrew Feinstein). Ajmal Masroor is wary of alarmist statements: “Muslims are not aliens”, he says, “we are part and parcel of this society, and our roles and responsibilities here have to be equal to everyone else’s.” For some time, the Muslim community has been criticised for not engaging enough with “British values” and democracy. Perhaps, for some, it is more frightening that they are.

In Ilford North, one resident, a physics teacher, is having a long discussion with Mohamad’s volunteers about the future of politics. “I feel hopeful talking to you all,” she says. There is anger and genuine grief over Gaza, but also a sense of possibility. Nanabawa hopes that The Muslim Vote can help to “bring the vibrant spirit of democracy back into the UK” and rebuild trust that the democratic system does allow for change. After Gaza, “It would have been entirely understandable had British Muslims recoiled from a democratic system that has treated them with disdain and contempt,” wrote Peter Oborne. “Hearteningly they did not do so.”

It is clearly not just Muslims who are feeling ignored by their MPs. But by mobilising one of Britain’s largest minorities over one unifying cause, TMV may be able to alter the political landscape.

If the campaign succeeds, invest in a good pair of earplugs. The Mail will be screaming again.