Labour Party famously re-branded its image as New Labour in 1997 with a strategic adoption of 'third-way' politics. This fundamental reorientation has had a profound impact on UK's economic and immigration policies over the years. The key elements of New Labour's philosophy included: 1) The party's neoliberal economic programme, hinging on measures to counter inflation and promote flexibility in the labour market. 2) Labour's cosmopolitan notion of citizenship and integration. 3) Inception of "new" Labour altogether with an uncompromising belief in the inevitability of globalisation.
Under Blair's Labour government, Britain's immigration policy went from a highly restrictive approach to one of the most expansive in Europe. Work permits, criteria were relaxed, the number of international students was doubled, and a new points-based immigration system was set up. More significantly, the 2004 decision to allow citizens of eight countries that were about to join the EU, the immediate right to work in Britain, resulted in one of the largest migration flows in Britain's peacetime history.
During the New Labour days, the Labour Party became the home of thousands of newly arriving immigrants to the UK from either the commonwealth or the EU. Almost two generations of the British Indian diaspora remained steadfast supporters of the Labour party for reasons varying from Labour's image as an immigrant-friendly party to Labour's relatively higher adoption to allow more BAME faces in the party to appeal to the immigrant vote base.
Over the years, with growing opportunities and affluence within the community, and as British Indians integrated more robustly into the British society, more Indians have become more Conservative-leaning, as they have become more financially comfortable.
The conservative party has also increased its outreach to the British Indian voters manifold in the last few General Elections. The current UK cabinet has top roles assigned to the British Indian origin MP's, with MP Rishi Sunak Conservative MP for Richmond, York's, son-in-law of Infosys's Narayan Murthy, leading the charge as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Priti Patel in charge as Home Secretary. This has been a game-changer for the party in terms of its acceptability within the community.
There has been a common shift among British Hindu voters away from the Labour party for the last decade or so. This was further accelerated by the Corbynization of the Labour party after 2015. During the Corbyn era, the divide between the party and the British Indian community grew wider, and the showdown happened after the events of 2019 with the Labour party infamously allowing a motion to be passed in its annual conference on Kashmir, caused a tectonic shift away from the Party even for the hard-core loyalists.
An internal review of the election debacle suffered by Labour in the December 2019 election suggests that more members of the 1.5-2 million-strong Indian community in the UK voted against it, reinforcing pro-Conservative trends in recent elections.
The 2019 election was clouded by resentment in the British Indian community about the party's stand on Jammu and Kashmir and claimed that some of its MPs and members joined or supported large demonstrations outside India House that turned violent on August 15 and September 3, 2019. The developments angered large sections of the community and led to a diplomatic row with New Delhi, which rejected a resolution on Jammu and Kashmir adopted at the party's annual conference before the election.
After Jeremy Corbyn was ousted and Sir Kier Starmer took over as the Labour Leader in April 2020, his first outreach to the British Indian community demonstrated an attempt to reach out to the dis-enchanted British Indian voters. Statistically, British Indians make up around 2% of the British Community and contribute around 6% to the GDP, which is remarkable, and the Labour party under Sir Kier Starmer seems to be showing the keenness to restore its hold within the community.
After a meeting with Labour Friends of India representatives in 2020, Sir Kier issued a statement:
"Any constitutional issues in India are a matter for the Indian Parliament, and Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully. Labour is an internationalist party and stands for the defence of human rights everywhere. I am committed to working closely with Labour Friends of India to rebuild trust with the community. We must not allow issues of the subcontinent to divide communities here. A Labour government under my leadership will be determined to build even stronger business links with India and cooperate on the global stage on issues such as climate change.'
Dial forward to 2021, at the recently concluded Labour party conference in Brighton, the party has officially said that the UK should not interfere in the politics of India, and it wants Indian diaspora voters to come back to the party. Steve Reed, shadow secretary of state for communities and the local government told a Hindus for Labour fringe event on Wednesday during the labour party conference in Brighton.
Although it is visible that there is some attempt by the Labour party leadership to reach out to the British Indian diaspora, there are still a number of critical fault lines within the party on its approach and strategy towards the community. At a recently held re-election in Batley and Spen, West Yorkshire, for instance, a divisive leaflet was issued by the Labour Party. The leaflet featured, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a handshake with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The message next to the image reads: "Don't risk a Tory MP who is not on your side."
For a community that contributes more than 6% to the UK GDP and is upwardly mobile, the decision to re-engage and trust the Labour party is not just dependent on the manoeuvres and optics of the Labour leadership but also on tangible changes in its policies and approach within the cadre for a more inclusive and diverse membership within the party.
One must not forget that the Labour party of today is a deeply divided house with a tussle for power still brewing between the ultra-left Corbynite's and the new-liberal centrists led by Sir Kier Starmer. The British Indian diaspora needs to engage with the entire spectrum of the British political class and the outreach by the Labour leadership is a positive start, but it will take much more than just the optics for the voters to re-engage and re-establish their affinity towards the post-corbynite Labour.
(The writer is a Digital IT leader and a community activist based in London. A Kashmiri Hindu, born and brought up in Kashmir, and has been living and working in the UK for the last 15 years and is also associated with an advocacy group ABHI UK, that aims to represent the interests of the British Indian community in the socio-political arena)