Starmer seems reluctant to talk about Muslims — but he can’t ignore the issue forever

Labour’s new prime minister was accused of ‘swerving’ questions about British Muslims’ relationship with his party. It’s a risky strategy

Journalists ask Keir Starmer questions. Artwork by Hyphen/Photo by Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Despite losing support among Muslims, Keir Starmer has failed to mention the community since entering office. Artwork by Hyphen. Photo by Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Britain’s relationship with its new government is in the honeymoon phase.

Keir Starmer’s authority is the strongest it is ever likely to be. His cabinet is firing off press releases and policy announcements while touring television studios to outline their plans for the country’s future. There is certainly plenty in their in-tray — the state of the economy, the cost of living crisis, war in Ukraine, the NHS and our prisons system — but there is one thing no one in the new government has mentioned: Labour’s relationship with British Muslims.

The party won a huge landslide in last week’s election, but its vote fell dramatically in areas with high British Muslim populations. Labour lost out in four seats to pro-Gaza independents — five if you include Jeremy Corbyn — while, in others, high-profile Labour faces like Wes Streeting, Shabana Mahmood and Jess Phillips came close to defeat. These results not only bucked the trend nationally but represented an unprecedented rejection of Labour in traditional safe seats. 

Given the prime minister appears to have said nothing about this since entering office, I brought it up when I had my first opportunity to interview him in his new role this week.

I asked Starmer, on camera, whether he thought his party’s relationship with British Muslims was an issue. He replied: “Very many people voted Labour in that general election who never voted Labour before, so we now hold seats in parts of the country that have never had a Labour MP. This is an incredibly strong mandate — but, of course, wherever we were not able to secure votes, I am concerned about that. But this is a clear mandate for change.”

The Independent described this as Keir Starmer “swerving” the question. Others felt similarly. I posted a clip of the interview on X and it spread very quickly, attracting more than two million views within a day. There were hundreds of comments, the vast majority of them unimpressed with the prime minister’s response.

Many highlighted Starmer’s failure to mention the British Muslim community in his answer, or since entering office. He made no mention of the candidates who lost. And he said nothing about how he intends to rebuild trust with the British Muslim community.

From all the above, it appears this is something Labour is not keen to talk about, preferring to focus on the rest of its agenda. Given the party’s majority, and with no elections on the horizon, I can see why advisers would think it makes political sense to minimise a negative story that is likely to have little immediate consequence for the party.

The Labour MP Apsana Begum, however, did comment on the interview — describing Starmer’s answer as “awful” and lacking “any acknowledgement of the need to build trust amongst British Muslims”. And I know many other Labour MPs feel similarly. I received messages of a similar vein from community leaders across the country, as well as Labour activists from a range of age groups. It was clear that many — as had been expressed both before and during the election campaign — felt ignored. Labour may not wish to address those feelings right now, but they are not going away. 

As I travelled around the UK during the election campaign for ITV News, I spoke to countless voters from a range of backgrounds who told me they felt similarly. Time and time again I heard that people were fed up with mainstream political parties, believing they were out of touch. Some told me they would not vote. Some said they would give Labour a chance despite their misgivings. Others said they would back Reform UK. In areas where there was a significant Muslim population, I was often told people planned to vote for their local independent candidate — reflecting polling conducted by Hyphen in the run-up to the election.

The election results bear this out. Reform UK now has five MPs, who sit alongside the five pro-Gaza independents. That is 10 MPs from these new groups, both attracting voters frustrated at mainstream parties. While the solutions offered by Reform UK and independents might be different, they are both tapping into the same frustration. 

That is why this issue is more of a cause for concern for Labour than meets the eye. Labour losing Muslim voters is just one part of a much wider phenomenon of disaffection with mainstream politics. Labour’s majority might be huge, but comparatively small vote share of 34%, and its loss of 537,000 votes since 2019, could make it fragile.

Starmer may not have addressed the issue in my question in a way many would have liked. But he must know that growing numbers of people feeling ignored is not good for him or our politics.

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