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U.K. Muslims mobilise their one million votes

By Jamie Doward

LONDON, FEB. 20. The Muslim Council of Britain is to take the unprecedented step of mobilising the country's one million Muslim voters through a card listing 10 key questions they should ask prospective Members of Parliament at the general election, expected in May.

The questions range from what the candidate's party has done to promote faith schools, its attitude to the war in Iraq and whether it has supported legislation outlawing incitement to religious hatred. They are likely to alarm Labour strategists, who have seen the party haemorrhage Muslim votes.

"Before the Iraq war the Muslim vote was solidly Labour, but polls suggest Muslims have deserted the party in droves," said Nick Sparrow of polling firm ICM Research.

The intervention comes as leaders of the three main parties court the Muslim vote, which may prove crucial in some marginal seats. The Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Opposition Conservative party leader, Michael Howard, and the Liberal Democrat party leader, Charles Kennedy, are preparing to meet council representatives at three of London's biggest mosques in the weeks leading up to an expected 5 May election.

Discussion on issues

"We have given the party leaders a number of dates between the end of March and 10 April when we could meet them to discuss a whole range of issues," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the council.

Sher Khan, who chairs the council's public affairs committee, said: "We want Muslims to engage with the election process. We want to get their vote out and for people to think through the issues and not vote out of blind loyalty."

Polls show that Labour's appeal to ethnic minorities has slipped dramatically. According to Mori, 78 per cent of ethnic minority voters backed Labour at the last election. But in the second half of last year the percentage intending to vote for the Government fell by 22 points to 56 per cent.

Research by Mohammed Anwar, professor of ethnic relations at Warwick University, shows a higher turnout by Muslims at election time than among other minority groups, suggesting they are an important demographic for parties to target.

During the last local elections Labour lost control of two key councils, Birmingham and Leicester, both home to large Muslim populations angered by the party's stance on the Iraq war.

"Obviously there are seats where Muslims are highly concentrated. In the last two local elections they used their vote in a way that saw Muslim Labour voters switch to the Liberal Democrats," Prof. Anwar said.

Major factor

But Mr. Khan stressed that the key questions card would not simply be used to attack pro-war politicians.

"It's a major factor, but people shouldn't underestimate the importance of domestic issues. Muslims in Britain are also concerned about their own safety and wellbeing. The parties have to demonstrate that they are engaged on these issues as well." — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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