Did Keir Starmer misrepresent Welsh Muslims on purpose?
Wales has never voted for a Conservative government — but we keep being ruled by one. Wales has voted Labour in every single election since 1922, and the Welsh vote is pivotal to the success of Starmer.
Cardiff, the capital of Wales, is also home to the oldest Arab community in Britain, and it’s home to the second oldest Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic population in Britain after Liverpool.
This made Cardiff the perfect opportunity for Keir Starmer and the Parliamentary Labour Party to visit compared to East London Mosque or Regent’s Park mosque.
In the two weeks before his Welsh visit, he took to LBC to argue Israel’s “right to defend herself”, it called the actions of Hamas terrorism and ultimately argued that the withdrawal of power and water from the Gaza strip was both proportional and justified, moves that have been described as war crimes by many organisations internationally, including Amnesty International.
Not long after, 150 Muslim Labour councillors came together to call on Labour's leadership to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza- but, fascinatingly, none of them were in Wales.
Starmer’s visit to the South Wales Islamic Centre on 25th October 2023 saw these histories brought together to damage controlling Starmer. Cardiff was one of the better opportunities for Starmer to damage control his comments.
Following the visit, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter to discuss his experiences meeting Muslims in Wales.
"I was grateful to hear from the Muslim community. I repeated our calls for all hostages to be released, more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, for the water and power to be switched back on, and a renewed focus on the two-state solution.”
A huge backlash ensued across the UK. The South Wales Islamic Centre issued a statement via the Muslim Council of Wales, reading: "We wish to stress Keir Starmer's social media post and images gravely misrepresented our congregants and the nature of the visits. We affirm, unequivocally, the need for a free Palestine. We implore all those with political authority to international law, and the end occupation of Palestine."
One thing that stands out about Islam in Wales is that the leadership, literature, and language differ from the landscape of England, and, more broadly, the United Kingdom.
Noor El Islam mosque in Tiger Bay was initially set up by Sheikh Abdullah El Hakimi, bombed by the Nazis during WWII, and rebuilt with money from the Colonial Office and the British Council.
Many of us speak Welsh as a second language, and a significant proportion of our history as Welsh Muslims comes from before the landing of the Windrush boat.
Here, all three characteristics are brought to the forefront to see an intensity of criticism from across the country on a community that is infrequently discussed or acknowledged in the context of British Islam.
The Muslim Association of Britain said Starmer’s visit was a “rather embarrassing photo op for the Labour Party”, and also commented “Keir Starmer visited a mosque and called for hostages to be released. Are the hostages being held in a South Wales Mosque?”
In 1991, Wales had a Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic population of 1%. According to the Office of National Statistics, the BAME population in Wales is now 6.7% — a growth of 400% over the past 32 years.
In 2001, Muslims in Wales totalled around 22,000 people, and today, that number stands at 66,947 people. The Muslim vote for Welsh Labour in the 2024 election is more important, statistically, than it has ever been before.
This is worth exploring because of the dynamics of race, faith, religion, and the Labour Party that have emerged since Keir’s comments on Israel.
In 2019, 71% of all Muslims in Britain voted for the Labour Party. According to a sample undertaken by the Muslim Census in late October, if there was a snap election tomorrow 40% of Muslims would not vote, and 4.8% would vote Labour. This is a drop of 66.2% because of Starmer’s stance on Palestine.
Welsh Labour differs slightly from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), with an increasingly tense dynamic emerging between PLP and Welsh Lab.
This has been consolidated by Mark Drakeford’s leadership during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain, and the growth of the Welsh independence movement, creating groups such as “Labour4IndyWales”.
The local Senedd member, Vaughan Gething, has remained silent on Keir’s trip. The Muslim Council of Wales haven’t released any statements on Keir’s visit but did help to circulate the statement from the South Wales Islamic Centre.
Cardiff has a Labour-run council, and a Labour-run Police Crime Commissioner, and Butetown, the heart of Cardiff docks, has Labour councillors: who have also remained silent on Starmer’s visit.
In 2019, Labour put up no BAME candidates in Wales. Savannah Taj, vice-chairwoman of the Labour Party’s BAME committee (and now the General Secretary of the Wales TUC) commented the party should consider all BAME shortlists.
Wales has never had a Black or an Asian MP, and Cardiff, naturally, is home to the most populous Muslim community in Wales. In 2023, PLP nominated Croydon councillor Sherwan Choudhry was shortlisted for Aberconwy and Bangor, but is unclear if any Black or Asian people from Wales have been shortlisted for Welsh seats.
The same year, Adam Price of Plaid Cymru made a speech advocating reparations for Wales after the day Plaid Cymru BAME was launched.
In response, 20 BAME community leaders signed an open letter to read that if Price "does not apologise, and if there is no serious accountability for these comments, it is abundantly clear to us that black lives do not matter in Wales." These signatories include Shavanah Taj and Butetown Labour Councillor Saeed Noor.
There has been no open letter from these leaders on Palestine, no public comment from prominent members of the Labour Party, and nothing from the Labour Party’s Wales BAME committee.
Are Welsh Muslim leaders silent on both the manipulation of Welsh Muslims and Palestine with a hope for a seat at the Welsh Labour table?
Yasmin Begum is a writer and campaigner from Cardiff, Wales. She has written for Gal-Dem magazine, the Welsh Agenda, and other outlets