Picture credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Communitarianism hits the ballot box

The local elections provided a glimpse of a future where voting is divided by ethnicity

Over this past week, leisure centres and village halls across Britain were the staging grounds of a quiet revolution. 

In Bradford, nine independent candidates running on a pro-Gaza slate swept into City Hall. In Blackburn, eight new councillors were elected in majority Muslim wards on a similar platform. In Oldham, Labour lost its majority on the council to independents elected in the heavily Muslim town centre. Labour’s Deputy Leader on Manchester City Council was ousted by George Galloway’s Workers’ Party, while 20 per cent of voters in Birmingham backed “Gaza Tiktok lawyer” Akhmed Yakoob in the race for the West Midlands Mayoralty. In Leeds, the new Green Party councillor for Gipton and Harehills celebrated his victory with a rousing cry of “Allahu Akbar”. 

Local elections, usually dominated by potholes and bin collections, had been hijacked by debates around an ethnonationalist conflict taking place thousands of miles away. This was phase two of the Rochdale Spring, kickstarted back in February by George Galloway’s barnstorming by-election victory in the town of the same name. Now as then, traditional political parties have been swept away by a tide of Muslim frustration with the British political establishment.

Much like the Arab Spring that swept the Middle East a decade prior, these revolts against the status quo were decentralised and heterogenous. Where the Muslim community is large enough and organised enough to stand on its own — like in Blackburn, Bradford, and Batley — we saw slates of independent candidates romp to victory. Across Greater Manchester, George Galloway’s insurgent Workers’ Party was the standard-bearer, overthrowing senior figures in local Labour politics with a combination of sectarian appeal and Galloway’s trademark Dundonian wit. Elsewhere, in places like Tyneside and Bristol, smaller, less established Muslim communities were able to make use of the Green Party’s existing electoral machinery. 

Until last week, it remained to be seen whether or not Galloway’s success was an isolated incident

What united these disparate campaigns was a simple strategy — appeal to Muslim voters on the issue of Gaza. It’s no secret that Keir Starmer’s equivocation on Israel is deeply unpopular amongst Muslim voters, who have traditionally backed the Labour Party. In February, Workers’ Party leader and cat impressionist George Galloway was elected to Parliament in the Rochdale by-election, combining an explicit sectarian appeal to Muslim voters with a communitarian “old Labour” campaign aimed at disgruntled members of the white working class. Until last week, it remained to be seen whether or not Galloway’s success was an isolated incident. We now have our answer. 

While Israel’s campaign in Gaza is doubtless the catalyst, the bigger story here is that Muslims in Britain are increasingly behaving as an electoral force beyond the traditional parties. Decades of mass immigration and failed integration has resulted in a number of poorly integrated Muslim communities, which often side by side with the kind of white working-class areas which enthusiastically embraced Brexit. Views in these communities tend to diverge radically from the British mainstream on homosexuality, foreign policy, and extremism. For decades, close relationships between the Labour Party and self-appointed Muslim “community leaders” kept the scale of this divergence under wraps; yet, as the size and confidence of the Muslim population grows, there is an increasing sense that Muslim political candidates can go it alone. According to recent polling from the Henry Jackson Society, 40 per cent of British Muslims would support the formation of an explicitly Muslim political party. 

It’s difficult to see how millions of voters who sincerely believe that Starmer is complicit in the murder of Gazan children can be rehabilitated into the Labour Party mainstream. The Labour left will use these electoral upsets as an excuse to call for an about-turn on Gaza, demanding that the Party endorse an immediate ceasefire in order to win over disgruntled Muslim voters. Those espousing this position would do well to remember Kipling’s immortal words — “once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane”. There is a risk here that the tail begins to wag the dog. 

At the other end of the spectrum, George Galloway seems intent on engendering a full-scale split between British Muslims and Labour. Combining Trumpian irreverence, idiosyncrasy, and ego with an understanding of internal Muslim community dynamics, the bellicose Dundonian is well-suited to the role of lisan al-gaib. The success of his pro-Palestine Workers’ Party, which plans to stand hundreds of candidates at the next General Election, will depend on his ability to coordinate a decentralised network of ‘community leaders’, many of whom are used to playing the role of big fish in a small pond. In the world of sectarian politics, egos abound.  

Either way, with Britain set to become more ethnically and religiously diverse in the decades to come, political sectarianism is here to stay. Muslim voters will probably continue to diverge from the mainstream, and this is unlikely to stop at Gaza. An organisation styling itself “The Muslim Vote” recently released a list of eighteen policy demands, which included provision of Sharia-compliant pensions, a new system for Sharia-compliant student finance, and changes to Ofcom’s rules around extremist programming.

At the same time, the country’s white working-class population, frustrated with Tory failure to curb mass migration, may seek out radical alternatives on the right. It remains to be seen whether or not our institutional infrastructure, which was designed for a high-trust, homogenous society, will be able to withstand this. One need only look over the water at Northern Ireland to see the damage that sectarianism can do to a political culture — division, dysfunction and, in the worst cases, violence. The same lessons are found in Lebanon, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and, yes, in Israel. Successful multicultural democracies are the exception, not the rule.

For now, while this trend is still in its relative infancy, politicians must get serious about tackling the issue. Curbing the flow of new migrants would be a good start — but unfortunately, this alone won’t be enough. Our sectarian problem is most acute in long-established Muslim communities, many of which have had some footprint in the country for three or four generations. Like it or not, it’s going to take more than additional funding for Prevent to fix that.

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