|Mike 'Brien (top) and MIchael Howard
London, Jan, 8: British politics is getting as depressingly communal as India's with a battle hotting up for Muslim votes in advance of the general election expected in May.
A government minister, Mike 'Brien, who urged Muslims not to vote for Michael Howard but to stick with Labour ' 'Ask yourself what will Michael Howard do for British Muslims' ' today provoked a hostile response from the Tory leader.
Howard accused 'Brien, who has been a minister in the home office and the foreign office and now holds the energy portfolio, of stooping to 'blatant scare tactics'.
Howard blasted 'Brien's 'low personal attack', after the latter had written an article in the Muslim Weekly newspaper appealing to the Islamic community to vote Labour in the general election.
The support of the 1.5 million Muslim community is as vital as that of the 1 million-strong Hindu community because the ethnic minority voters are concentrated in solidly Labour constituencies. If they are lost, Tony Blair will be in deep trouble.
If Muslims desert Labour, as it happened in Birmingham during the local government elections last year, the beneficiaries will be the Liberal Democrats. Thanks to Muslim fury over the Iraq war, Birmingham city council is now dominated by the Lib Dems, who ' unlike Labour or the Tories ' opposed the military conflict right from the start.
It is ironic that it will fall partly to Lord Navnit Dholakia, a reasonably orthodox Gujarati Hindu with a good race relations record, to seduce Muslim voters away from Labour to the Lib Dems, of which the peer was until recently the president.
It is unlikely very many Muslims will switch to the Tories but the Labour Party is deeply worried about the consequences of losing support among its traditional ethnic minority vote bank. The Hindus have not declared their hand, and may tell Howard, should he win, that they supported him all along. They could say the same thing to Blair, who should get back, according to analysts, though probably with a greatly reduced majority.
This is the background which explains 'Brien's attack on Howard in his article in which he wrote: 'Will his foreign policy aim to help Palestine' Will he promote legislation to protect you from religious hatred and discrimination'
Warming to the theme that the Tories were bad for Muslims, 'Brien continued: 'Will he give you the choice of sending your children to a faith school' The last thing we want is to vote in anger and repent at leisure as Michael Howard, with a big smile on his face, walks through the door of Number 10.'
To which, Howard responded today with: 'It saddens me greatly that a Labour minister should stoop to such a low personal attack and deploy such blatant scare tactics as this. It won't wash. Muslims know ' just like people of other faiths, and of none ' that Labour have let them down."
'Brien then came back with: 'In an article in Muslim Weekly I attacked Michael Howard as leader of the Conservative Party and not personally. As minister for race equality from 1997 to 2001 I have a strong record in promoting good community relations as well as challenging the evils of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. I am proud of taking the Race Relations Amendment act through the Commons.'
It is custom and practice for some Labour MPs to promise Kashmir on a plate to their Pakistani constituents just before an election ' Labour's former deputy leader Roy (now Lord) Hattersley seemed to do that once.
Life won't be easy for the Lib Dems, either. If Pakistani Muslims want concessions on Kashmir from the Lib Dems as the price for their support, this may alienate Indian-origin voters, many of whom are flirting with the idea of voting Lib Dem for the first time in their lives.
Individual Labour MPs have their work cut out. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, has been prominent in arguing the case for the Iraq war, which has left many of his Muslim constituents singularly unimpressed. He has tried to pacify them by opening a UK visa consulate in Mirpur ' his message is that this is not getting back Indian Kashmir but it is better than nothing.
Labour's best pitch may be to tell Muslims: 'You may not like us but you dislike the Tories more. If you vote Lib Dem, you could be allowing in the Tories through the back door.'
None of this takes into account the manifesto of the far Right British National Party, which will argue that the Muslims should not be in Britain to start with. That will enable Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems to announce that the one issue on which the three agree is that the BNP is beyond the pale.