THE BLOG

Engagement Is the Only Answer

21/01/2013 12:47 GMT | Updated 22/03/2013 09:12 GMT

In what the was the first event of its kind ever, the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, met with over 500 members of Britain's Muslim communities at the Islamic Cultural Centre, London. It was a historic gathering because it was the first time ever that the leader of one of the three main political parties had help an open public meeting with Britain's Muslims. Participants in the event travelled from as far afield as Cardiff and Manchester, with over 100 women and over 100 youth involved. They came from a whole array of nationalities and backgrounds but were united not only in their faith, but by their desire to engage and by their hope in Britain.

For many the meeting is noteworthy because Ed Miliband distanced himself from many of Labour's historic policies including the war in Iraq. He also spoke in favour of Palestinian statehood and against some of the draconian parts of anti-terror legislation. However, the real significance of the meeting was Ed Miliband's willingness to engage, discuss and answer tough questions. In the politics of the battle for the votes of the British Muslim communities it is Ed Miliband who has seized the initiative and has taken the first step in what will be a long and fruitful relationship with Britain's Muslims.

The sheer number and range of Muslims who attended the gathering is a testimony to the seriousness with which British Muslims took the meeting (indeed, the room could have been filled three times over). The questions were asked in a balanced manner with the right measure of local, national and international issues, with some questions raised on issues affecting Muslims and other raised on matters affecting all of us. But, it is testimony to Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party that in his effort to be involved in engagement with as many people and communities as possible, he has carried the rest of the party. Ed Miliband's inspiration in this regard is demonstrated by the calibre of parliamentarians present at the Islamic Cultural Centre.

The gathering was attended by the first female (acting) leader of the Labour Party, dame Margaret Beckett. Also present was the inspirational Keith Vaz, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and a man who over 25 years ago became the first ever member of parliament from an Asian background. In this regard it is worth mentioning that it was the Labour Party who had the first ever Muslim MP, the first ever Muslim peer, the first ever Muslim MP born in this country, the ever Muslim minister, the first ever Muslim member of the cabinet and the first ever Muslim female MP.

Ed Miliband was accompanied at the meeting by the Right Honourable Sadiq Khan, the shadow lord chancellor and justice secretary. Khan's brief was increased the day before when he was appointed the shadow minister for London, demonstrating his ever increasing standing in Britain's political scene. Talked about as a future Mayor of London, he continues to emerge as a political role model not only because of his work with mentoring charities including Mosaic, Uprising and Operation Black Vote but also through his sustained commitment to make modern Britain a better place for all.

It has always been assumed that Muslims will vote for Labour. The last few elections have shown the increasing importance on the outcome of elections of the black and minority ethnic communities. This reality has never been more apparent than in last year's US presidential elections. With British Muslims becoming more politically savvy, however, no party can take their votes for granted. In recent weeks the Conservatives have spoken of courting the Muslim vote. But whilst other parties may seek the Muslim vote it is the Labour party, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, that have been the first to reach out to Britain's Muslim. It is certainly the Labour party that has first mover advantage, and the other parties whilst playing 'catch up' must realize that whilst British Muslims have never voted as one homogenous block, they do want their political leaders to provide them with positive engagement.

For too long politicians have failed to listen to the electorate at any time other than during election campaigning. Yet engagement remains the only way forward. Maybe after this week's historic meeting, with no election in sight, we will see that a new type of politics is possible and a new political age has been born