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The new sectarianism is a menace to democracy

An alarming number of would-be MPs are appealing to voters on purely religious or ethnic lines.

Charlotte Littlewood

Topics Politics UK

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As the UK General Election fast approaches, new research has revealed that first-time voters of faith place a great deal of importance on their religious beliefs when deciding how to vote. A poll by Whitestone Insight for the Institute for the Impact of Faith in Life has found that 35 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds say that religion will shape who they vote for, compared with just 15 per cent of those aged over 55 who say similar.

The increasing role of faith at the ballot box could play into the hands of certain political actors. We already saw an example of this in the Rochdale by-election earlier this year. The victor, George Galloway, deliberately used his opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza to appeal to local Muslims. He even called his election success a ‘win for Gaza’.

Galloway is far from alone in trying to mobilise voters along religious lines. Campaign group the Muslim Vote is actively seeking to encourage Muslims in certain constituencies to back candidates who support a ceasefire in Gaza. The group wants to put ‘Muslim issues at the forefront’ of this election, according to its website. ‘We are a powerful, united force of four million acting in unison.’

It’s not only Muslims being encouraged to vote as a religious bloc. The Sikh Federation UK also claims to be promoting a ‘voting strategy with other minority communities that all political parties need to take seriously’. Elsewhere, a group of British Hindu organisations has released a ‘manifesto’ of demands, including the classification of anti-Hindu statements as a hate crime. It is calling for candidates to publicly support its manifesto.

This reduction of voters to their religious and ethnic identities is severely degrading political discourse. It has already led some candidates to neglect issues that affect all British citizens, like healthcare, roads and jobs. Campaigners for Azhar Iqbal Chohan, an independent candidate for Slough, have openly declared: ‘We don’t care about healthcare, we don’t care about education – we only care about Palestine.’

Worse still, the Tory candidate for Dudley North, Marco Longhi, sent letters out to British-Pakistani voters putting the Hindu surname of his Labour competitor in bold typeface. He was clearly insinuating that Muslim voters should choose him instead of his main rival because of her Indian background.

The establishment of religio-ethnic voting blocs also risks opening the door to foreign influence on British politics. The Overseas Friends of the BJP, for instance, seeks to promote the Indian government’s interests in the UK. Ahead of the 2019 General Election, it accused the Labour Party of being ‘anti-India’ in an effort to drive voters elsewhere.

Those trying to encourage religious bloc voting are not averse to using intimidatory tactics against those seeking to bridge religious divides. Azhar Iqbal Chohan’s campaign team were recently seen castigating Muslims outside a mosque who were taking leaflets from his Labour rival, Tan Dhesi, the UK’s first turbaned Sikh MP. Dhesi is then chased away and called a ‘Zionist devil with the blood of Palestinian children on his hands’.

The emergence of this vicious sectarianism is a real threat to our democracy. Every individual should be able to vote free of tribal pressure and foreign-state influence. But thanks to the rise of identity politics, people are being divided up into religious, ethnic groups and encouraged to vote accordingly.

The problem here is not religion per se. Religious values have long informed people’s political principles and activism. The problem comes from those seeking to exploit religion in order to advance their own sectarian causes. We need our prospective MPs to start pushing back against this retrograde development. They need to start addressing us as citizens, not as representatives of identity groups.

Charlotte Littlewood is a research and media consultant, specialising in extremism and radicalisation. She supports numerous global think tanks.

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Topics Politics UK

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