Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 12:27 UK

In search of the Muslim vote

The UK's Muslim leaders have been campaigning to get their community to vote. And politicial parties are reaching out as never before to Muslims, particularly in London. In the past, Muslims tended to vote Labour but, as Paul Moss from Radio 4's World Tonight programme discovered, all that has changed.

Mosque in London
The Muslim vote is being courted in the London mayoral elections

They seemed pleased with the turnout.

On a cold, rainy Sunday evening, dozens of people crowded into a small mosque in Hendon, north London, to hear a talk from a visiting sheikh.

Suliman Gani quoted from the Koran, from other reported remarks of the Prophet Mohammed and he also cited fatwas from leading Islamic scholars through the ages.

All this to argue one crucial point: that Muslims should take part in elections.

'Culture of voting'

"Muslims living in a non-Muslim country should engage with the community" he told them. "There are 600,000 Muslims here in London, alone - every vote counts."

It is the forthcoming London election that has galvanised this campaign. Muslim leaders from a wide variety of organisations have come together in a concerted effort to persuade people to register their name on the electoral roll, and then to go out and vote on 1 May.

"The culture of voting isn't there for many communities," says Mustafa Arif, who helped arrange the Hendon talk.

The candidates are visiting mosques, and Islamic centres. They get their photographs taken - they are really desperate to get the Muslim vote
Ahmed Versi
Muslim News editor

"But things like the war in Iraq, and the atrocities in London have put pressure on Muslims. And more and more are realising that Muslims can influence the vote."

It looks like the politicians have noticed. The mayoral contest has seen candidates reaching out to Muslim voters as never before, a development greeted with rye amusement by Ahmed Versi, editor of the monthly newspaper Muslim News.

"In the past, we hardly got any contact. This time round, I'm inundated with press releases from all three main parties.

"The candidates are visiting mosques, and Islamic centres. They get their photographs taken - they are really desperate to get the Muslim vote."

Iraq effect

But it is a moot point what meaning that phrase - "the Muslim vote" - still has, whether British Muslims do make their choices collectively as a community, or are just as individual in their political loyalties as any other citizens.

In the past, the vast majority of Muslims who did vote, voted for Labour, as did members of other ethnic minority groups.

But the unpopularity of the Iraq war drove away many Muslim supporters. Fewer than half chose Labour at the last general election, according to the polling organisation, MORI. And other trends suggest the Muslim vote can no longer be taken for granted.

The question is which of these candidates is in the best position to cement harmony and unity
Muslim man at Hendon Mosque

"Many Muslims are becoming more affluent. There are increasing numbers voting for the Conservative Party," Versi says, "and they are also concerned about the environment, so they might vote for the Green Party.

"Muslims have different kinds of view; they will vote for a candidate they believe will deliver."

But Labour is not giving up on its Muslim constituency without a fight. There has been a concerted campaign by some Muslim organisations not just to get their community registered, but to make sure they tick the right box.

Real issues

"Five reasons to vote for Ken" was the title of an email and leaflet sent out by the "British Muslim Initiative", just one of the groups which insists that all Muslims should support the present incumbent in the mayoral contest.

They tend to focus on the claim that Boris Johnson, the Conservative challenger, has made denigrating remarks about Islam. And they also cite what they say is his support for Israel.

But Mr Johnson has dismissed all these allegations as a distraction from the real issues facing Londoners. He insisted it was offensive to call him "Islamophobic", as his great-grandfather knew the Koran off by heart.

Muslim woman at polling station
Labour cannot take the Muslim vote for granted

Whatever the truth behind these claims and counter-claims, the vociferousness of the argument is another indication of the Muslim vote's perceived importance.

Muslims are around 10% of the population in London, and have similar concentrations in some other British cities.

But if Muslims can no longer be relied on to vote as a group, that still leaves open the question of whether their religion has an influence on how they vote.

"Of course it does" was the response of one member of the congregation at the Hendon Mosque - an elderly immigrant from Pakistan.

"Islam is on the side of those who stand for righteousness and justice."

His view was echoed by many others there, who insisted that Islam provided a framework for life, so it was natural that it would have something to say about politics.

"The question is which of these candidates is in the best position to cement harmony and unity," a man from Nigeria said.

But like all the others, he insisted there was no contradiction between being British, and voting as a Muslim.

"The creator knows all of us inside out, Muslim and non-Muslim. He knows how we can all lead a good life. These values which you call Muslim, they are for the benefit of the community as a whole."





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THE ELECTION RESULTS
COUNCIL RESULTS
  Councillors Councils
Party +/- Total +/- Total
CON 257 3155 12 65
LAB -334 2365 -9 18
LD 33 1804 1 12
PC 31 205 -1 0
OTH 10 898 0 0
NOC - - -3 64
159 of 159 councils declared.

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London Mayoral results
Overall results
Name Party Votes
Johnson CON 1,168,738
Livingstone LAB 1,028,966
Paddick LD 878,097
Berry GRN 409,101

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London Assembly Results
Overall results
Party Constit' Top-up Total seats
CON 8 3 11
LAB 6 2 8
LD 0 3 3
GRN 0 2 2
BNP 0 1 1

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Results in more detail


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