Poll shows Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are gaining support amongst Muslims [EPA]

British Muslims are abandoning their traditional support for Gordon Brown's Labour party and instead look set to back Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats in this week's election, community organisers have found.

A poll of British Muslims conducted last week found that almost three-quarters of respondents believed the Liberal Democrats offered fairer policies than either the Labour or Conservative parties.

YouElect, a non-partisan grass-roots campaign aimed at persuading British Muslims to vote, polled 940 Muslims from four cities over the days running up to the country's final televised leaders' debate last Thursday.

The methodology differed from mainstream opinion polls, with 70 per cent of respondents taking part in an online survey instead of taking telephone calls.

But if repeated at the polling booth, the figures would represent an unequivocal shift of support away from the governing Labour party to the Liberal Democrats.
 
The Liberal Democrats, traditionally Britain's third largest party after Labour and the front-running Conservatives, have enjoyed a boost in opinion polls following strong performances from Clegg in the three televised debates of the campaign.

Melting support

Clegg's party is currently neck and neck with Labour, which has traditionally been supported by large swathes of the UK's 1.6 million Muslims.

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After 13 years of a Labour government that has helped launch two unpopular wars against Islamic countries and passed counter-terrorism legislation that critics say unfairly discriminates against Muslims, it appears that support is melting away.

The YouElect poll found that 74 per cent of respondents thought the Liberal Democrats offered the fairest foreign policy, compared to just 19 per cent for Labour and five per cent for the Conservatives.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was overwhelmingly cited as the most important foreign policy concern amongst the Muslim voters surveyed, with Clegg's criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza playing particularly well them.    

The Liberal Democrats performed almost as well on domestic policies, with 70 per cent of those polled saying that they thought the party's manifesto pledges were fairer than those of the other parties.  

'Surprising' results

Ismail Patel, the manager of YouElect, told Al Jazeera that he had not been expecting to see such an obvious swing to the Liberal Democrats in the poll.

"It's very surprising, especially the level of shift around the country," Patel said.

"British Muslims have traditionally supported the Labour party and this a clear shift to the Liberal Democrats."

Interestingly, the survey found that support for Clegg as a leader was far lower than approval ratings for his policies, which Patel believes reflects the British parliamentary system of electing governments.

"Although they feel the Liberal Democrats would be conducive to Muslim needs they were less sure about Nick Clegg, the party leader," he said. "People vote for a party, not a personality."

Patel says that the apparent flow of support away from Labour represents more than disaffected voters switching allegiances.

Instead, he believes that many British Muslims now view the Liberal Democrats as a viable alternative to represent their interests.

"We had an opportunity to punish Labour in 2005 and it didn't really happen," he says. "There wasn't any real alternative last time round."

Regardless of which way the vote on Thursday goes, the sense that this election could be a watershed moment in British politics appears to have energised a community that is becoming ever-more politically engaged.

Increasingly politicised

The Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a London-based civil liberties group, is organising campaigns against sitting MPs that it says have not represented the interests of Muslims living in their constituencies.

British Muslims have traditionally supported the ruling Labour party [EPA]

Their targets are all Labour MPs.  

"We are not partisan, but in a number of constituencies we have chosen to endorse candidates who are not Labour," says Tahir Shah, a spokesman for the group.

"Out of six campaigns, we are backing four Liberal Democrat and two Conservative candidates." 

Shah says that more Muslims are planning on casting a vote on May 6 than in any previous UK election, with concerns over whether voting is consistent with Islamic faith becoming a thing of the past.

"There have been record numbers of people of all backgrounds registering to vote," he said.

"We have detected that the Muslim community here is becoming increasingly politicised. The vast majority of Muslims now believe that voting is permissible."

If that is the case, and the pattern in the YouElect poll is repeated at the ballot box on Thursday, many Labour MPs could find themselves struggling to win votes that in previous elections they would have taken for granted.

Under the unforgiving rules of the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system, that could be the difference between winning or losing precious parliamentary seats in a race that is being widely tipped as the closest for a generation.  

Source: Al Jazeera