Independent Muslim who beat Labour in Leicester says victory was not ‘sectarian’

Estimated read time 5 min read

The man who pulled off a shock victory at the general election by ousting shadow cabinet member Jonathan Ashworth has criticised claims that the wave of strong showings by independent Muslim candidates represents the rise of “sectarian” voting.

Shockat Adam, an optometrist, caused a huge upset by beating Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general and a familiar face in Labour’s election campaign, to become the new MP for Leicester South.

Adam was one of three independent Muslim candidates to win Labour-held seats amid anger at the party’s stance on Gaza, with Labour also losing Blackburn and Birmingham Perry Barr.

Another independent candidate, Iqbal Mohamed, won the new seat of Dewsbury and Batley.

Other Labour MPs only just held on to their seats: new health secretary Wes Streeting won a mere 528 more votes than Leanne Mohamad in Ilford North, while Naz Shah held her Bradford seat by barely more than 700 votes.

Early analysis of the election results by the thinktank More in Common shows that Labour’s vote share fell sharply in seats with large Muslim populations.

The string of successes by Muslim independents has sparked a backlash, with the journalist Stephen Pollard describing them as “the rise of sectarian voting”, while Telegraph columnist Sam Ashworth-Hayes condemned their victories as: “Total, utter failures of integration.”

Jonathan Ashworth standing at a podium with a microphoneView image in fullscreen

Speaking to the Observer, Adam said: “What people are doing is exercising their democratic rights for the things that they’re concerned about. People in certain positions of power and in the media weaponise terminologies, causing division between communities.

“And this is just another example of that, when involvement by minorities or involvement in the political system by Muslims is seen as a threat for some reason, whereas all they’re doing is exercising their democratic right and being part of the democratic process.”

At the declaration of the Leicester South result, Adam said: “This is for the people of Gaza,” but his acceptance speech also referred to the cost of living crisis and the state of the NHS. His key campaign pledges also covered the housing crisis and he emphasised that his campaign targeted all demographics and ethnicities.

“I was very cognisant of making this more than a one-issue campaign,” he said. “I’m a healthcare professional. I’m an optometrist by profession. And I know the backlog and the issues and the consequences of an inefficiently run NHS service.

“The housing crisis, I knew about it, but I didn’t know the extent of the issue until I started my campaign, where I’ve gone to so many places, people’s homes. And mainly when I spoke at events or on my campaign trail, housing was the No 1 issue.”

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He said that Labour’s stance on Gaza – and in particular, Sir Keir Starmer’s comments last October that Israel had the right to cut off power and water from Gaza – had angered voters and driven them towards him. But he characterised his win as part of a broader backlash against the political mainstream.

“The number of times I heard: ‘I hope you’re not from Labour, mate.’ Or: ‘I hope you’re not from the Tories, mate,’ ‘I ain’t going to vote, there’s no point.’ We were hearing that repeatedly,” he said. “There’s apathy, there’s disenfranchisement. They just feel that the two parties don’t represent them.”

However, local Labour sources complained of intimidation and harassment during the campaign, which saw Ashworth confronted over Gaza while out canvassing. One anonymous leaflet, featuring an image of the former MP, stated: “Vote for genocide – vote Labour.”

“Leicester has never seen a campaign like this before,” said the Labour source, who also claimed that some who signed Ashworth’s nomination papers had been pressured to withdraw their support.

A spokesperson for Adam said on Saturday: “The campaign was a community grassroots effort, taking into account genuine community concerns and was conducted in compliance of full electoral regulations.

“We condemn any form of intimidation or harassment as they do not reflect our values.”

An organisation called the Muslim Vote endorsed a range of independent and non-mainstream candidates at the election, including the four independent Muslim candidates who were elected, plus former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who held his Islington North seat as an independent, and George Galloway, who lost his Rochdale seat to Labour.

“We really have seen Muslim communities stand up and say that, you know, if you want to represent us, then you have to represent our policy positions,” said Abubakr Nanabawa, coordinator of the Muslim Vote.

“And this goes beyond Gaza – I think speaking to Muslims across the country, two of the things that came up quite often were the two-child benefit cap and the refusal to remove that, and also the state of the NHS.”

The insurgent campaigns against Labour MPs were not without controversy. Jess Phillips, who held her Birmingham Yardley seat by just under 700 votes, was heckled at the count after an acrimonious campaign in which she said her activists had their car tyres slashed and abuse screamed in their faces.

Akhmed Yakoob, who failed in his attempt to win Birmingham Ladywood, was revealed to have made misogynist comments and joked about domestic violence. “We do not condone these comments at all,” said Nanabawa of Yakoob. “I think what’s actually interesting to see is that these comments may have in some part contributed to his lack of success.”


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