Picture credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The rise of electoral sectarianism

Multiculturalism is reshaping British political life

There was a certain delicious irony in watching Sir Trevor Phillips, a man once suspended from the Labour Party over allegations of Islamophobia, do battle with Reform’s Nigel Farage on the issue of Muslim integration last weekend. 

Phillips seemed aghast at Farage’s insistence that many Muslims in the UK “do not subscribe to British values, [and] in fact loathe much of what we stand for”, despite previously describing British Muslims as a “nation within a nation”. Journalism truly does make strange bedfellows of us all. 

Like him or loathe him, it’s difficult to disagree entirely with Farage’s comments; there is a clear divergence between many Muslims and the British mainstream on a number of major issues. In 2021, a teacher at Batley Grammar School faced death threats from Muslim parents for showing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to students. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. The growing gulf has only been exacerbated by the events of October 7th and Israel’s subsequent campaign in Gaza, which has sparked open calls for jihad on the streets of the capital. Recent polling shows that 46 per cent of all British Muslims share some sympathy with Hamas. 

Now, sectarianism is taking to the campaign trail. In May’s local elections, pro-Palestine candidates triumphed in heavily-Muslim communities across the country, with barnstorming victories for independent slates in places like Blackburn, Oldham, and Bradford. Could this be the year that political sectarianism finally rears its ugly head on the national stage? It’s certainly not impossible.

Like TE Lawrence leading the Bedouin in revolt against the Ottomans, George Galloway will seek to capitalise on Muslim frustrations with Westminster’s alleged inaction on Gaza. Combining an explicitly sectarian appeal with trademark wit and a “Blue Labour” pitch to disaffected Labour voters, he swaggered to victory in the Rochdale by-election back in February. In May’s local elections, his Workers’ Party picked up more seats than Farage’s Reform. 

The Workers’ Party flies under the radar of traditional pollsters, and evades simple analyses of national swing. What’s more, Galloway’ campaigning style heavily relies upon winning the support of major “community leaders” in order to sway large numbers of voters, a fact which makes predicting his chances of success remarkably difficult.

His support is likely to be highly concentrated in areas with large Muslim populations, with a few smaller pockets amongst the “old left” in post-industrial communities. We should expect to see most of his effort spent on retaining his own seat, Rochdale, while former diplomat Craig Murray in Blackburn and Arshad Ali in Dewsbury & Batley will likely mount credible challenges. In a handful of heavily Muslim seats with high-profile Labour incumbents, like Wes Streeting’s Ilford North and Angela Rayner’s Ashton-under-Lyne, the Workers’ Party could put a substantial dent in large majorities. 

Given Galloway’s reputation for belligerence and eccentricity, not all pro-Palestine candidates are happy to go into battle alongside the behatted Dundonian. In Birmingham, outspoken solicitor Akhmed Yakoob will stand in the Ladywood constituency, building on his success in the West Midlands Mayoral election back in May. With a campaign that focused almost entirely on Gaza, Yakoob picked up almost 20 per cent of the vote in Birmingham, with independent analysis suggesting that his share of the vote in Ladywood may have been as high as 40 per cent. 

While Gaza might be the sine qua non of these campaigns, it is by no means the only issue of interest for Muslim voters. Advocacy group The Muslim Vote recently issued eighteen policy demands, including the legal adoption of a new, expansive definition of Islamophobia, reform to Ofcom’s rules on extremism, and provision of Sharia-compliant pensions. 

It’s also a question of political culture, and a sense that it is acceptable to explicitly shape campaigns around the interests of particular ethnic or religious groups. It’s telling that Bradford West’s Naz Shah has taken to recording campaign videos in Urdu, while many Workers’ Party candidates display Palestinian flags in place of British flags on their election literature. 

As explicit electoral appeals to sectarianism become commonplace, both major parties must now walk a precarious tightrope. Thirty seven constituencies now have a Muslim population of more than 20 per cent, while a further seventy three seats have a Muslim population of between 10 and 20 per cent. The Muslim vote in particular is now simply too large to ignore.

For Starmer’s Labour, this means balancing the need to hold onto Muslim voters against the need to be perceived as politically moderate. Galloway’s attempts to siphon off Muslim voters will only make this balancing act more challenging. 

However, the issue isn’t straightforward for Sunak’s Conservatives either. Tory Minister Steve Baker described Farage’s views on British Muslims as “ignorant and offensive”, a position likely informed by the fact that 18 per cent of his constituents in High Wycombe identify as Muslim. In Peterborough, Paul Bristow has taken to observing Ramadan in a bid to connect with Muslim constituents. All the while, figures on the Party’s right are growing bolder in their criticisms of Islamist extremism, creating an unenviable dilemma for a Prime Minister seeking to present his party as unified and coherent.

in the years to come, any party attempting to build a broad coalition will need to contend with the realities of sectarian politics

Whether or not this election is the inflection point for Britain’s march towards political sectarianism is besides the point; in the years to come, any party attempting to build a broad coalition will need to contend with the realities of sectarian politics. It is difficult, for example, to imagine how thousands of voters who sincerely believe that Keir Starmer is complicit in the murder of Palestinian children can be successfully integrated back into the political mainstream. 

Of course, sectarian political campaigning is not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon. In areas with large Hindu communities, candidates have begun to pander to Hindu nationalism, working hard to demonstrate their pro-Modi bona fides. The undisputed master of this craft is Harrow East’s Bob Blackman, who has managed to hold the West London seat, where nearly a third of voters are Hindu, by beating the drum for India. For his pains, he was awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian honour in 2020. His narrow majority is unlikely to survive a Labour landslide, but expect to see Blackman overperform nevertheless. 

It should concern us that Britain is fast becoming a country in which parties pander openly to particular ethnic groups by adopting foreign policy stances. For the most part, the Conservatives are now the party of Israel and India, while Labour is the party of Palestine and Pakistan. These are shaky foundations on which to build a healthy, self-interested foreign policy.

As Britain looks set to become more ethnically and religiously diverse, we can expect to see this trend intensify, with new groups carving out their own niches in a bid to amplify their political influence. If current trends continue, we might expect to see the country’s white British majority begin to behave similarly. We should remember that sectarianism turns politics into a zero sum game, with groups advocating only for their own narrow interests, a fact which will be obvious to anybody with even a passing knowledge of Northern Ireland’s unfortunate history. 

After decades spent sowing the wind, Britain is beginning to reap the political whirlwind — if not at this election, then in the elections to come. You won’t hear it mentioned much in this campaign, but history may well remember 2024 as the year that race and religion once again became issues in British elections.

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