The Socialist Unity Network

On the communal vote

Andy Newman


One of the “common sense” myths being promoted is that RESPECT is the beneficiary of a “communal vote”.  At the moment this argument is coming from the political fringe, but it is likely to be echoed by mainstream commentators and the Labour party once the penny drops that in some areas RESPECT may be in a position to win seats. The implication of this accusation of communalism is that the voting has been organised along loyalties and social structures that are somehow backwards or pre-capitalist. There is a clear implication that Moslems are more likely to use their vote based upon a recommendation by a leader from their faith community than other religious groups.


At least some of the people making this accusation believe Islam to be a more politically backwards religion than Christianity, citing the oppression of women in Islamic countries and alleging that Islam is anti-democratic. Whereas, of course, Ian Paisley and the Pope are principled campaigners for women’s rights.  No-one complained about the Church of England opposing the worst excesses of Thatcher, or the recent call by Bishops for their voters not to support the BNP.


We should remind ourselves when discussing the oppression of women in Moslem countries that it is secular Moldava where the country’s biggest source of foreign currency is selling young women into sex slavery. It is the Christian United States that has the highest proportion of reported rapes, and where pornography is a bigger industry than automobiles.


Certainly it is true that RESPECT received most of its highest votes in areas where many Moslems live. However, this is not universally true. For example in a local election in Neath in Wales RESPECT secured 28% in one ward. It is worth noting that according to the 2001 national census Neath has only 0.2% Moslems, compared to a national average for Wales of 0.7%; and a national average in England and Wales of 3%. Indeed Preston, one of RESPECT’s strongholds has a Moslem population representing 8.2% of the population. This is higher than the national average but not enough to explain how RESPECT could get an average of 30% across 5 wards in the town.


Both the Neath and the Preston results show that RESPECT can get significant votes beyond the Moslem community. Clearly in the case of Preston there are a lot of other factors going on. Not least of which has been the very good performance of Michael Lavallete, both before and after his election as a councillor - after all success does breed success.


Preston also has an established tradition of independent left councillors and there was a 5.5% vote for the Socialist Alliance in a parliamentary by-election in November 2000. (The role of accident should also never be completely discounted, and last year’s electoral success for the SA may have been incidentally helped by child sex allegations against Bill Chadwick leader of Preston’s Lib Dems, because elsewhere in the country the Lib Dems were the main beneficiary of the anti-war vote.)

RESPECT’s success in Neath is admirable, and I would be very interested in learning what underlay that strong vote.


We might expect that if RESPECT’s votes elsewhere had been delivered by “communal” organisation, then there would be a higher turnout in areas with a significant Moslem population. However, if we look at the following graph comparing the proportion of Moslems in the overall population against the turnout in all 49 electoral districts in the Eastern region you will see there is no relationship between the two.



In fact in Luton, where 14.6% of the population is Moslem there was a relatively low turnout, of only 28%, compared to a regional average of 37%.


What is more, if we compare the following groups of results, we can see that there is clearly something else going on other than simply a “Moslem vote”


Burnley - Moslems 6.6%, RESPECT 1.3%

Walsall - Moslems 5.4% - RESPECT 4.1%


Slough - Moslems 13.6% - RESPECT vote 5.8%

Luton - Moslems 14.6%, RESPECT 6.05%


Swindon - Moslems 1.0%, RESPECT 0.9%

Aylesbury - Moslem 2.6%, RESPECT 0.8%


Cambridge - Moslems 2.4%, RESPECT 1.7%

Colchester - Moslems 0.8%, RESPECT 1.7%


Political choices are being made, and many Moslems are voting for other parties. We might speculate that the higher RESPECT vote in Walsall was associated with the strong local campaign by the Socialist Alliance in the local elections, and the relatively weak result in Burnley due to tactical voting against the BNP.


Certainly the call by the Moslem Association of Britain (MAB) for a Green Party vote in the South East seems to have made little difference in Slough, where Respect beat the greens.


Nevertheless, we must face the fact that RESPECT’s vote was much stronger in the Moslem community than elsewhere. This can most strikingly be demonstrated by comparing RESPECT’s vote with the proportion of Moslems in every district in the Eastern region:


There is a clear relationship, although the correlation is weaker in towns with a bigger Moslem population.


As a comparator, there seems to be no relationship between Respect’s votes in the same region, and the proportion of homes without central heating, a crude index of social exclusion.




What is more, in Tower Hamlets, where Respect topped the poll the population has much greater racial and religious diversity than the national average. With 48.66% of the population describing themselves as non-white and 36.4% being Moslems, compared to a national average of 8.7% being non-white and 3% Moslem.


So it seems that Moslems are much more likely to vote Respect than the rest of the population are. Nevertheless, Moslems are no more likely to vote than anyone else, and political choices are being made. What is more, in some areas Respect did demonstrate that it could gain significant votes from non-Moslems.


Is this surprising, given the “War in Terror” and talk of clash of civilisations; given the media witch-hunt against Abu Hamza and the implication that all Moslems are potential suicide bombers. Is it any wonder that in such circumstances the political organisation that has stood firmest against the racism, and been most steadfast in its opposition to the neo-imperial project in Iraq and Afghanistan should have received higher votes among Moslems? Is it by chance that George Galloway, the politician before all others who has championed the cause of the Arab peoples, should be celebrated in the communities that identify with their co-religionists?


Had this simply been a communal vote then we would expect to have seen a higher turnout in areas with concentrations of Moslems – there is no evidence of this. What we do see is the choice by many thousands of individual Moslems to vote for a progressive party on a programme that, if implemented, would be severely challenging to British capitalism. There was little difference in the vote in Tower Hamlets between those who voted for Oliur Rahman a Bangladeshi, and those voting for Lindsay German, an atheist woman.


Of course, there were other factors at work. There were endorsements by religious and community figures, voting influenced by local and personal loyalties, etc. But in all honesty this is just what happens in elections, and is in quality no difference from relating to tenants groups, community associations, etc.


It was correct to launch a political project that could build a bridge between the opponents of imperialism and war on the one hand and the opponents of neo-liberalism and capitalism on the other. Respect’s election platform is not Islamist, it is broadly socialist. That is what people voted for. It is of course correct to both attempt to relate to immigrant and faith communities on the basis of class demands, and also to relate to the existing structures in these communities, based upon what values are shared. How else can you gain an audience for socialist policies and promote class differentiation?


The challenge for us now is how to move forward, so that there are more results like Preston and Neath. Let us use RESPECT’s good votes as a stepping stone to greater success.




July 2004


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