More thoughts on the results of the General Election 2010
I was going to post briefly on this, but Atif Imtiaz provides a very good summary of the comings and goings of Muslim politicians in last week’s General Election:
The election saw the number of Muslims in parliament rise from 4 to 8. Muhammad Sarwar has left parliament and his son Anas Sarwar is now the MP for Glasgow Central after a comfortable victory over Osama Saeed for the Scottish National Party. Shahid Malik for Labour in Dewsbury lost to Simon Reevell of the Conservatives by over a thousand votes. However, Sadiq Khan retained his seat for Tooting and Khalid Mahmood held his seat in Birmingham Perry Bar. The six newcomers are Rushanara Ali, Shabana Mahmood, Anas Sarwar, Yasmin Qureshi, Sajid Javid and Rehman Chishti. Rushanara Ali for Labour fought off a challenge from Ajmal Masrur for the Liberal Democrats and Abjol Miah for Respect. Rushanara Ali looks likely to be most talented of the new members of parliament. Having studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford university she has worked for the Foreign Office, the Home Office and has been Associate Director at the Young Foundation under Geoff Mulgan. If she can forge constructive partnerships with the local Muslim community, then she could become a catalyst for major improvements for a community that ranks amongst the most deprived in the country. Shabana Mahmood, another Oxford graduate, a barrister and the daughter of the local Labour party chairman, won in Clare Short’s former seat of Birmingham Ladywood with a comfortable majority. Yasmin Qureshi, also a barrister, won in Bolton South East again with a comfortable majority. Sajid Javid won for the Tories in Bromsgrove, Julie Kirkbride’s former constituency. Javid has previously been a Vice President for Chase Manhattan Bank. Rehman Chishti practices as a barrister and has previously been an advisor to Benazir Bhutto.
(Also worth also noting that, although unelected, Sayeeda Warsi became the first Muslim woman to hold a Cabinet position.)
Indigo Jo notes that “none of the male Muslim MPs elected has a beard and none of the women wears hijab, and all are of Asian background”. The issue of the beard and hijab are going to be of concern to people worried about group identity, but the lack of support for bearded Muslim males — Rushanara Ali comfortably beat two of them including an imam — may show Muslim voters (in areas where they can make a difference to the election outcome) aren’t too interested in such politics or at least put them lower down the ladder when more pressing concerns arise (e.g. a lot of analysis for Labour’s increased vote in inner-city areas and successes in the local council elections points to genuine concerns about the inevitable cuts in public spending under the Tories). And all these Muslim politicians being of Asian origin is no real surprise: the largest Muslim ethnic groups in the UK would come under the rubric of ‘Asian’, and unlike, say, Somalis are better established at present.
However, even if the election results are hailed by liberals as a sign of that Muslim groups rejected the communalist and sectarian politics that parties like Respect are accused of (but even the major parties engage in when they feel the need to), perhaps the selection of supposedly secular and non-sectarian candidates may mask the problem of ‘clan-based’ or ‘ethnic-based’ politics. For example, one commentator writing about the election in Bradford noted:
The first and striking feature is the fact that some of the candidates chosen from the Muslim communities were not necessarily chosen on the basis of merit but rather on the potential level of support that they could leverage. The fault here lies with the political parties themselves. The net result of this ‘clan based’ politics is that the growth and political awareness of the community is halted, it prevents candidates from actually engaging in debate around issues that are important to Bradford for example a continually waning town centre, lack of jobs, the hole in the city, educational attainment and issues around equality. This lack of debate not only disempowers voters in say Heaton, Manningham, Thornbury etc. but it also disempowers political parties, the political process, the wider community and has the potential of increasing the alienation of Muslim communities.
Furthermore, ‘clan politics’ disenfranchises Muslim women from the political process. On the one hand there are calls for integration and involvement of women but critically on the other hand they are excluded when a husband stands next to his wife in a voting booth and tells her which way to vote. The act of voting is a personal affair and it links to or should link to one’s deeply held values. How can this happen when clan-based and misogynist politics is involved?
There has always been anecdotal evidence of this in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, especially in local council elections, and almost always tied to accusations of voting fraud. Superficially, the election results may underline the accusations against Labour which is usually the party accused of using such tactics. The two Tory MPs — Sajid Javid and Rehman Chisti — were both selected as ultimately successful candidates for areas with very small Asian or Muslim populations. In contrast, the Labour MPs all stood in areas with a reasonably sized ethnic population similar to their own. Further, two of the successful MPs are the offspring of locally well-known politicians — Anas Sarwar is the son of Mohammad Sarwar, and Shabana Mahmood is the daughter of the Birmingham Labour Party chairman. This is all without looking at the unsuccessful candidates (e.g. consider that the four leading local parties contesting the Bethnal Green and Bow seat had selected Bangladeshi candidates).
What isn’t usually mentioned when discussing politicians from ethnic or minority backgrounds is class. Oxbridge graduates, lawyers, and a banker: it seems Muslim MPs entering the political class are no different to their peers. Hurray for integration.