The move is being seen as an attempt to capitalise on the Muslim community’s disenchantment with the ruling Labour government over its role in the US-led war on terror.

Liberal Democrat president Simon Hughes has met with Muslim groups in a bid to court the community’s vote, which could unseat cabinet big-hitters such as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Home Secretary David Blunkett.

Fiyaz Mughal, of the party's ethnic minority forum, confirmed on Tuesday that the party is targeting potential Muslim candidates but denied it was a ruse to secure the community's vote.

"It is an issue of principle," he told Aljazeera.net.

"The fact is that we are head-hunting people from all ethnic minorities because they are under-represented in parliament. It is a question of fairness, first and foremost."

Membership up

Mughal said the party has benefited from Muslim frustration with Labour.

"Our party’s membership among ethnic minorities has shot up from 2% or 3% to 12% and the majority of these new people are Muslims.

Blair's decision to invade Iraq
was opposed by British Muslims

"I think there has been a definite sea change since September 11. Muslims are upset with Labour about a lot of things such as Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the anti-terrorism act etc. A lot of Muslims want to wash their hands of the Labour party."

Many of Britain's approximately 1.7 million Muslims - who have traditionally supported Labour at election time - are predicted to desert Tony Blair's party at next year's general elections.

British Muslims have vocally opposed several of Labour's high-profile policies, including the decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq and to introduce controversial anti-terrorism legislation, which critics say targets Muslims.

A ICM/Guardian poll earlier this year showed that Muslim support for Labour has diminished from 75% to just 38%.

And with the Liberal Democrats continuing to ride high in opinion polls, just seven points behind the struggling Conservatives, the move could cost the government valuable seats.

Success

Labour argues it is still the best party in government for Muslim voters because of its improvements to the economy, anti-discrimination legislation and the introduction of the minimum wage.

Nevertheless, many analysts in Britain believe the Liberal Democrats are the natural home for disillusioned Muslim voters because they opposed the Iraq war and are perceived to be liberal on issues such as immigration and welfare.

"The fact is that we are head-hunting people from all ethnic minorities because they are under-represented in parliament. It is a question of fairness, first and foremost"

Fiyaz Mughal,
Liberal Democrats

They say proof of this was provided at last year’s Brent East by-election when a big Labour majority was overturned by a Liberal Democrat candidate thanks in part to the London borough’s Muslim voters.

However, Anas al-Tikriti, of the Muslim Association of Britain, said it is far from certain that the party will capture the Muslim vote.

"We still haven't decided who we are going to endorse because the election is still a long way away," he told Aljazeera.net.

"There is a lot riding on this election. We are still in consultation with all the parties and we are going to hold them all to task.

Islamophobia

"The question is: 'What are the overriding issues for British Muslims?' Is it foreign issues like Iraq and Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya, or is it home issues like the anti-terrorism act and Islamophobia?"

He added: "The Lib Dems might feel like they are a natural choice for disenchanted Muslims, but they have a long way to go as far as we are concerned.

"While we admire the way they opposed the Iraq war, we were less than impressed over how they gave unconditional support to the troops once the first bullets were fired"

Anas al-Tikriti,
Muslim Association of Britain

"While we admire the way they opposed the Iraq war, we were less than impressed over how they gave unconditional support to the troops once the first bullets were fired.

"And now they are saying that troops should remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future."

Although Britain’s Muslim vote cannot make or break governments, it is thought that it could be the deciding factor in up to 20 inner city seats at parliamentary elections.

At the moment, Labour holds 406 seats in the House of Commons, the opposition Conservatives 163 seats, and the Liberal Democrats 55 seats.

There are currently only two Muslim MPs in the British parliament, although there should be about 20 if demographic statistics are taken into account.