Muslims, the minority who could give the Conservatives a majority
The party should appeal to many Islamic voters, but it is struggling to win them over
Britain’s home secretary Theresa May gestures during her keynote address on the second day of the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester earlier this week. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Cork-born Susan Williams ran for the Conservatives in Bolton West in the 2010 UK general election, losing by 92 votes in a constituency with 14,000 Muslim voters.
Given the Conservatives’ totems of self-reliance, the family and hard-work, the party should be attractive to Muslims – many of whom run small businesses.
However, such is the not the case. In 2010, the Conservatives won just 16 per cent support from all ethnic communities; up to two-thirds voted for Labour.
Mohammed Sufyan Ismail of the Muslim lobby group Engage argued this week that the Conservatives have to reach out to the community. “Not being white was the single best indicator that you will not vote Conservative,” he told a fringe meeting at the Conservatives’ Manchester conference.
In 2015, the number of House of Commons seats where black and Asian voters, if they act collectively, could decide the outcome will have jumped by 70 per cent compared with 2010. And the
list of 168 marginal seats does not just cover traditional inner-city areas, but rather
has spread out to Ipswich, Northampton, Oxford,
Sherwood and Southampton.
However, the problem for the Tories is self-evident. Ismail’s meeting was poorly attended; just one Muslim MEP turned up, and delegates were matched in number by press and lobbyists.
Traditionally, Muslims have voted Labour on the
back on the party’s more supportive attitude on
immigration in the 1950s and 1960s. Equally, Labour built ties with the community through the trade unions in north of England mill towns: “Cracking that is extremely difficult,” says Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim.
Ismail argues that the Conservative should relentlessly focus on Muslim votes, saying they could be the crucial swing voters. “Muslims number 2.7 million of the population, enough on their own to give the Conservatives a majority if they voted as a block,” he insists.
Just as importantly, if not more so, they are rapidly growing: “Half are under 25. One in 10 of the UK’s under-25 population is now Muslim. Mohammed was the most popular name in London
Meanwhile, Muslims are beginning to spread from the heartland ghettoes they have occupied in the north of England and London since the 1950s. “They are the sleeping giant in the room and it is astonishing how little any of the main parties are doing to get their support,” he went on.
If necessary, ignore older voters completely, he argues. In the past, it was difficult to get messages into the community because local imams in mosques controlled the flow.
Today, satellite TV and social media have changed the landscape, as was shown by Respect’s George Galloway when he won the Bradford West byelection, trouncing the Labour candidate.
Galloway targeted women voters and students in Bradford’s university, even though his ability to hold on to the seat in 2015 is being increasingly questioned locally.
Much of the work required can be done by the micro-targeting of voters carried out with such accomplishment by the Obama campaign.
The Conservatives have
a story to tell: changes to stop-and-search laws, which curbed police powers, have been welcomed in black and Muslim districts. Equally, the party’s focus on the family and enterprise is attractive, though its attitude to immigration strikes contradictory chords within the community.
Many of the immigrants who have come since the 1950s share the view that too many immigrants are now coming in and getting too many benefits.
The accuracy of this is debatable, but irrelevant since opinions are more important than facts; but, equally, Pakistani and Bangladeshis bridle when they cannot get family, or brides, in to the country.
Message for illegal immigrants
Over the summer, the home office sent out vans with a “Go Home” message for illegal immigrants in key constituencies in London and elsewhere. In some places, the vans were popular, says Conservative MP Margot James but the message fell flat when it “went through the prism of the media”.
MP Eric Ollerenshaw, as blunt as Lancastrians tend
to be, complained that he is “sick” of hearing that the Conservatives need to engage more with the community. “In Birmingham, we don’t have one single Asian councillor,” he complained, while the same goes in the suburbs of Leeds “where our support is”.
Even when they have a
story to tell, Conservatives
fail miserably, he argues, pointing to the abolition of mixed-sex wards in NHS hospitals since 2010. The practice had been unpopular generally, but especially so within traditional, reserved Muslim communities: “We have done nothing to tell people about it,” he said.
Foreign policy resonates differently, too, among
Muslims to the population
at large, says James, who represents Stourbridge in
the West Midlands.
“Kashmir and the Israeli/Palestinian issue is more important to my Pakistani voters that any domestic issue,” she said, during another fringe meeting this week.
During a meeting with young people in Dudley North, where he is running in 2015, former soldier Afzal Amin said local youths “spent 90 minutes talking about jobs and two-and-a-half hours talking about foreign policy”.
Back in Bolton West, the Conservatives’ fight for “the 92 votes” will be led by Christopher Green, since Susan Williams, born in Blackrock in Cork, is now in the House of Lords.