It’s a Friday in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and groups of men spill out of a mosque after lunchtime prayers. They pass an Asian sweetshop and a takeaway restaurant, as they make their way home down the narrow streets of terraced houses, where the town’s textile workers once lived.
Vibrant Muslim communities such as this one are found in mill towns on both sides of the Pennines, in constituencies where Boris Johnson is desperate to break through in order to secure his all-important majority. But his party’s ongoing problem with anti-Muslim racism could cost him crucial votes.
Junaid Shaukat, 29, who voted Tory last time, is one. “At the last general election in 2017, I wasn’t aware of how big the issue of Islamophobia is in the Conservative party,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“And now with different accounts on Twitter … for two or three years we’ve got these people calling out the Conservative party on a daily basis, and there’s not any action at all — the action they do take is suspending somebody for a week and letting them back in, they’ve not really dealt with it.”
“I don’t think I’ll be voting Labour,” he added. “I was going to vote for the Conservative party if they included something in the manifesto about an inquiry into Islamophobia, but they didn’t do it as far as I know, so I’m put off from voting at all, to be honest.”
“If they try, they can win a lot of votes from Muslims, but they just don’t try,” he added.
Tayyab Iftekhar, 19, is a student and a first-time voter. He has put a lot of thought into his vote but is still undecided.
“Personally I wanted to do my own research on which party offers the best for my future, and I feel like the Conservatives … I agree with a lot of the policies that they stand for.
“But what’s going round in the media now the Islamophobia … is kind of off-putting, being a Muslim youth and hearing comments that Boris made about women in burqas looking like letterboxes.
“If you’re prime minister, you not only have to be able to represent the country, you have to represent the people of the country, and if he’s making comments like that in our country, how’s he going to represent us on an international basis?”
“It’s now a toss-up over who to vote for,” he added, “I’m very unsure.”
The Muslim Council of Britain crunched the numbers to find out the seats where Muslim votes could matter the most and found that 31 marginals could change hands because of the Muslim electorate.
Keighley is one. Labour’s John Grogan took the seat from the Tories in 2017 and is defending a majority of just 249 votes. The MCB estimate the Muslim electorate to be 21.6 times bigger than the margin.
“It’s going to be a very close contest,” Abid Hussain, a Keighley Central Labour councillor told BuzzFeed News.
“The Muslim vote is a very important vote,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in Keighley, in Bradford, who might be supporting the Conservative party, but they’re not supporting [them] this year.”
And in the streets around the town’s Victoria Park, there isn’t much enthusiasm for Johnson’s party.
Selma, who doesn’t want to give her full name, is unimpressed with Johnson and won’t be voting for his party. “He keeps going on about letterboxes,” she said. “I know a lot of people hate him, I’ve had a lot of discussions, they just don’t like him.”
Rosama Nawaz, 22, is a politics graduate who works for a mental health access project. She is voting Labour. “I want a Jeremy Corbyn government,” she said, adding that Islamophobia is “a problem with Muslims who vote Conservative.”
“They think if they ignore it enough it’ll go away,” she said.
Zenab, who doesn’t want to give her full name, is also voting Labour. “I want someone with a bit of credibility representing us on an international stage and I don’t trust Boris Johnson at all.”
She thinks the Tory Islamophobia issue is well known here and that it will lose them votes among Muslims who have supported them in the past. “I know a few,” she said.
According to research from the Runnymede Trust, Muslim voters were overwhelmingly backing Labour by the time of the last general election. The organisation found: “Labour did especially well among Muslim voters in 2017; in 2015, Labour received 74% of votes from British Muslims — in 2017, this had risen to 87%.”
This was put down to a number of factors, including former Lib Dem voters who had opposed the Iraq War switching back to Labour and Conservative austerity measures hitting ethnic minority voters.
However, there is still a margin for the Conservatives to lose more votes. Following an unprecedented intervention by the chief rabbi, who criticised Labour’s record on anti-Semitism, the MCB issued its own unprecedented statement, saying: “the Conservative Party [have] approached Islamophobia with denial, dismissal and deceit.”
“British Muslims — whilst from the most disadvantaged communities and rarely allowed a voice in the public space — will listen to the Chief Rabbi and agree on the importance of voting with their conscience,” it added.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative chair and vocal critic of the party on this issue, said the Conservatives are continuing to lose the votes of the few Muslim supporters it has left.
“A lot of people who are fundamentally conservative in their political ideology just feel that it’s not a place that they feel they’re welcome or that they can belong to,” she said, “and that’s why they are confused about whether they can go out and vote this time.”
She said the Conservatives have also lost at least four Muslim donors who feel that they can no longer give their votes — let alone their money — to the party.
“I’m not convinced that they’ll go out and necessarily vote Labour,” she added, “but I think a lot of people will sit the election out because they can’t bear to put a cross there.”
Warsi said she is disappointed that she gave the party a detailed six-page breakdown of why Muslim votes were lost at the last election, and what could be done to stem the flow — but the Conservatives have done nothing to act upon her recommendations.
“Nothing at all,” she said, “And that’s the tragedy of it. We have been aware of this, and we’ve done absolutely nothing to change it.”
This problem could ultimately see Johnson fail to make what are on paper easy gains in seats like Keighley.
Ghulam Rabini runs the Sangat Community Centre. “These politicians, we always know they will say anything to achieve something,” he told BuzzFeed News. “They do not think how much damage it will do to the community.”
Rabini said most people in the community are aware of Islamophobia in the Conservative party, but there are Muslim Conservative councillors here, and it may not be the deciding factor for everyone.
Racist comments from politicians are not just hurtful on a personal level, but also risk stoking divisions and damaging the local economy by putting off potential investors, he said: “We need people with money to come and invest their money here, create jobs, that’s what we need from the politicians.
“This is what we need, we don’t need these superficial, artificial remarks about different communities.”
He added: “It hurts the people whom they make the target, but it also provokes other people to maybe do more harm to the community.”
Over the border in Pendle, it’s a similarly tight contest, except for the fact that the Conservatives are on the defensive.
The seat has a slim Conservative majority of just 1,279 and was held by Labour until it was won by the incumbent, Andrew Stephenson, in 2010. As of June last year, 14% of the electorate were Muslim.
BuzzFeed News met Azhar Ali, the Labour candidate, for a walk around Nelson, the largest town in the constituency. It is market day, and despite the November rain, the streets are busy.
Islamophobia will be an election issue here, Ali said, particularly “amongst a lot of young Muslim men and women,” but so will “bread and butter issues,” such as the NHS, school cuts, and local infrastructure.
“There’s a real concern that over the last couple of years, Islamophobia along with anti-Semitism has been on the rise,” he told BuzzFeed News, “and people feel uncomfortable.”
He added: “They are concerned that people who are in positions of responsibility, people like Boris Johnson, who has made comments in the past, and they feel that these comments are being orchestrated, they’re not off-the-cuff comments, they’ve been said and designed to create division and to create anxiety and to pit Muslim women against other parts of the community.”
Stephenson did not respond to requests for a meeting, but Conservative councillor Nadeem Ahmed was happy to talk. He doesn’t think the issue will play heavily among Muslim voters here, and he predicts the Conservatives will retain this seat.
“I think it’s an issue in all the parties to be honest,” he said. “I think it’s a particular problem in society generally that needs to be addressed rather than a particular party … it needs to be challenged, I agree, more needs to be done by the Conservative party, I totally accept that.”
Warsi has been up to Pendle to campaign for Stephenson. She said the seat is “on a bit of a knife-edge.”
“I did a detailed breakdown in 2017,” she told BuzzFeed News, “and I said to them that one of the reasons that I think we lost seats like Bury North, Keighley, Peterborough, was because of [Islamophobia]. Because the members of Parliament in those seats just did not engage.
“What I’ve found is where a local member of Parliament has built relationships and is understanding and representative of everybody in that constituency, we’ve managed to hold those seats.
“Seats like Pendle, even against the odds, because Andrew Stephenson is so engaged and actually very thoughtful and informed on the issue then those seats we seem to hold and we did last time.”
In seats where MPs had not built relationships, or where relationships had broken down, the Conservatives lost, she said.
On the streets of Nelson, it’s a mixed bag. Gulfam Azan, 24, thinks he will be voting Conservative. “I don’t really support the Conservatives, but I think they’re the best party right now,” he said.
He is aware of the issues around Islamophobia in the Conservative party, but he is also mindful of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem, which puts him off voting for them. “The Labour party engaged the war in Iraq, this is one of the reasons I don’t like them,” he added.
Safina Iqbal, 32, said she is aware of Johnson’s comments about Muslim women, but wasn’t shocked by them. “There’s loads of Asian community here,” she told BuzzFeed News, “and we don’t fear these kinds of [comments], we’re used to [it] now. We choose Labour every time.”
“I might go for Tories, because I’m a landlord,” Tahir Mahmood, 34, said. “There are black sheep everywhere,” he added, “even in Muslims, there are some racist people … I might ignore [Johnson] … still I might go for Tory.”
However, for Nadia, who doesn’t want to give her full name, it is a big issue, and she is voting Labour. “That’s quite a big concern because I feel like since the Conservatives have come in, Islamophobia has definitely spread,” she said. “I don’t think it’s deteriorated, I think it’s been escalated.”
Katie Nolan is a community development officer with community cohesion charity Building Bridges Pendle. Islamophobia from people in power can make their work more difficult, she said: “I think because people then snap back to their own ways of thinking, because it’s then starting from scratch really.”
Her colleague Shabaz Ahmed added: “I think it’s irresponsible.”
“[Johnson] might not have meant it in the way that it’s been portrayed and broadcast,” he said, “but the fact that he said something like that shouldn’t be happening because we live in a diverse country now.”
They were in agreement that the issue would have some impact on votes in Pendle — but they weren’t sure to what extent.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a Muslim, if they’ve heard that, how are they going to vote for him? They’re not are they?” Ahmed said.
There is little doubt that Muslim votes are important in these seats. The question is how many voters will have switched allegiance since last time.
CCHQ had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.