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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
Labour threatened by Muslim vote
By David Green
BBC News, Blackburn

Blackburn
Could Blackburn desert Labour for the first time in decades?
For as long as anyone can remember, Blackburn has been one of Labour's firmest strongholds.

It has supplied two of the party's leading lights in Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the late Barbara Castle.

But this once indomitable Lancashire fortress, sitting at the foot of the Pennines, suddenly seems vulnerable.

Discontent over the Iraq war is felt keenly here, where many Muslims, who make up 26% of the electorate, are starting to turn their back on their traditional support for the Labour party.

Ajaz Ellahi, a 28-year-old fabric shop owner, is an example.

"I voted in the last election for Labour but I absolutely will not this time, due to the fact that they are murderers in disguise as you have seen in Iraq," he says.

"Jack Straw seemed like a decent person when he was incapable of doing anything in this society but now he's got a position of power he's abused it greatly."

Labour was the people's party but this time they proved that wrong
Fozia Khan
Muslims in the Bastwell and Audley areas of the town have a mixed view on Labour's post-Iraq position.

Many say anger over the war will stop them voting Labour, but others, like 22-year-old Imran Khan, are still loyal.

"I'm going to vote for Labour, I think they're doing OK in Blackburn," he says.

"Immigration and jobs are the main issues for me. There are a lot of asylum seekers and they need to be more spaced out and not all sent to one place."

It would certainly be a major shock if the foreign secretary's 9,249 majority over the Conservatives was overturned but feelings are running high.

"There are about 25,000 Muslim voters in Blackburn so of course they can make a difference," says the Tory candidate, Imtiaz Ameen.

UK foreign secretary and Blackburn MP Jack Straw
Jack Straw says the election is "tighter" than 2001 or 1997

"Jack Straw did not listen to them and dismissed their views. He is no longer guaranteed that vote and we have a very good chance of unseating him."

Mr Straw stresses he is not "taking this election for granted", adding: "This is a tighter election than 2001 or 1997 and it would have been without the Iraq war because we have been eight years in government.

"However, this election is a straight choice between the Conservatives and Labour. The common factor is that the Conservative party would have taken this country to war with Iraq and a lot sooner than we did."

Meanwhile, Anthony Melia, the Liberal Democrat candidate, insists the major battle is between himself and Mr Straw.

"The war has been a major turning point in Blackburn. Where people in the past voted for the Labour party without thinking about it, it's made people look at alternatives."

'Costly adventures'

Nineteen miles down the road in Rochdale, Labour's Lorna Fitzsimons, defending a majority of 5,655 over the Liberal Democrats, faces a similar problem as the town's substantial Muslim minority could decide her fate.

Both constituencies are being targeted by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), a London-based lobby group which is knocking on doors, trying to persuade Muslim voters to flex their muscles and vote out Labour MPs.

"We can't tell Muslims who to vote for but we are saying there is a choice of mainstream candidates and if you vote for a mainstream party then you'll be better off," says MPAC's Mudassar Ahmed.

Haras Rafiq
I think people need to vote with their brain rather than with an emotion
Haras Rafiq
"When people go on costly adventures abroad the money they use there doesn't go to the NHS, the police service or improving local schools.

"Muslims have the same interests as non-Muslims."

On Milkstone Road, at the heart of the town's Asian community, street level anger over the Iraq war is at a similar level to that of Blackburn.

"Labour was the people's party but this time they proved that wrong," says Fozia Khan, a volunteer at the crèche of her local Mosque who voted Labour in 2001.

"They spent millions of pounds on that war when they could have spent it on education and health for our country."

But anger at Labour is far from universal, says Haras Rafiq, the 40-year-old president of Bridges TV, a Muslim entertainment channel he is helping to set up in his hometown.

"I think people need to vote with their brain rather than with an emotion," he says.

"We're never going to get a party that is going to represent any individual on a 100% level."

The Liberal Democrats are in a strong position in being the only major party to oppose the Iraq war.

"Most Muslims were not in favour of the troops going into Iraq and Lorna voted for that three times," says its candidate, Paul Rowen.

Ms Fitzsimons admits Labour has "angered" Muslims over the war but stresses the election is about "more than one issue".

Tory candidate Khalid Hussain, a local Muslim, plays down religious issues, saying his party will focus on its "core middle England vote".





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