Labour faces 'Muslim backlash'

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Loyalist Labour MPs and ministers who backed the war in Iraq face a backlash from Muslim voters, say community leaders.

Ihtisham Hibatullah, a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, said Labour's defeat in Brent on Thursday was a "clear warning" to other Labour MPs to change policy on Iraq and on their support for President George Bush.

Muslim activists are targeting a number of prominent MPs who hold seats with large numbers of Muslim voters, particularly the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in Blackburn and the east London MPs Oona King, Jim Fitzpatrick and Stephen Timms.

The association, which helped organise the mass anti-war marches in London earlier this year, claims that Sarah Teather won the Brent East seat partly because it had urged Muslims in the north-west London constituency to vote Liberal Democrat.

Mr Hibatullah said anger at the Government's war in Iraq, its stance over Afghanistan, its policies on the Middle East and its active support for President George Bush's "war on terror" has severely affected Muslim support for Labour.

"This isn't an anti-Labour mobilisation at the moment," he said. "It's about stopping the warmongers. We want an ethical foreign policy. We have a very substantial vote bank which, if channelled, could be very effective."

At the same time, left-wing groups inside the Stop the War Coalition are planning to launch a broader anti-New Labour agenda at their rally in London next weekend. This will include attacking Tony Blair's leadership, a "national oil day" demonstration at petrol stations and burning effigies of the Prime Minister and President Bush.

These threats and Thursday's Brent East result will make many Labour MPs uncomfortable since Muslim immigrants, particularly from Pakistan and India, are traditionally staunch Labour voters.

In east London, mosque leaders are discussing putting up anti-Labour candidates at the next general election.

Ahmed Versi, editor of Muslim News, said that Muslim voters were generally young, and were more politically motivated than their parents. Muslims were also joining some local Labour parties - such as Harrow, held by Gareth Thomas, and Ms King's Bethnal Green constituency - to try to influence local party policy.

In Blackburn, which has 26,000 Muslim voters, Mr Straw has already faced fierce criticisms from Asian Labour councillors and local mosques over policy on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr Timms, the energy minister, has also been confronted by local mosque leaders in his constituency.

"At the next election, Straw will have a lot of problems," Mr Versi said.

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