19 November 2019

Labour faces a battle to hold on to Hindu voters

By Guy Dampier

A few weeks ago Jeremy Corbyn managed to upset an entire country. It began innocently enough, when he tweeted about his “very productive meeting with UK representatives from the Indian Congress Party” during which they had “discussed the human rights situation in Kashmir”.

In most contexts that might have been innocuous enough, but for the Congress Party it was a disaster. It looked like they were meeting a representative of a former imperial power to discuss a highly sensitive matter, which many Indians consider to be a purely internal or at most bilateral issue. Congress immediately distanced themselves from Corbyn’s claim. Indian news channel Republic TV aired a fiery segment in which talking heads condemned Corbyn and his record on terrorism.

Shortly before this Labour had passed a motion at conference which called on international observers to enter Jammu and Kashmir as well as demanding the right of self-determination for Kashmiris. Labour’s Keith Vaz issued a statement after the motion passed, saying it “created unnecessary divisions within the Indian and Pakistani diaspora in the UK”. He wrote to his party’s NEC and Corbyn, calling on them to recall the motion. He was backed by Indian-born MP Virendra Sharma, who said he “fully supported” Vaz and that these were internal Indian matters, not matters of Labour policy.

Labour Friends of India (LFIN) went one step further and appeared to criticise the involvement of Pakistani-origin Labour MPs with the motion, calling on Labour not to allow the “politics of the subcontinent to divide communities here in Britain”. Shortly afterwards, no fewer than 110 British Indian organisations signed a letter addressed to Corbyn, expressing their “deep dismay” at the “one-sided and divisive” Kashmir motion.

The Kashmir motion also led Satish K Sharma of the National Council of Hindu Temples to compare the issue to Labour’s anti-Semitism scandal. It should be noted that in 2015 and 2017 the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) urged Hindus to vote Conservative but was forced to withdraw the advice by the Charity Commission. The NCHT has accused Corbyn and Labour of “internal apartheid” and “anti-Indian racism” over the Kashmir motion.

Rising tensions weren’t helped by claims in the Indian press that a “Kashmir Cell” within the Pakistani High Commission in Britain were responsible for organising a protest march on Diwali, which led to anger amongst some Hindus who saw their holy day being hijacked. Navin Shah, a Labour councillor and London Assembly Member, wrote to Sadiq Khan to request the protest be cancelled. Khan himself condemned the plan but was unable to cancel the event.

Now this rancour threatens to spill over into the general election and potentially damage Labour’s chances.

Take the selections in the normally safe Labour seat of Leicester East, where Vaz is departing after 32 years as MP. The choice of Corbyn all Claudia Webbe as the candidate has led to real anger. Webbe has pointed out that although she is an Islington councillor, she was born and raised in Leicester. Her rivals were less sanguine. Sundip Meghani, who missed out on selection, wrote on his blog that Webbe’s candidacy was “a slap in the face for the Indian community in Leicester and across Britain” because she comes from non-Indian heritage and was on the NEC when the Kashmir motion was passed.

LFIN have also criticised the way that Labour have failed to increase the number of Indian-heritage MPs, even in seats with large Indian-heritage populations such as Leicester East. “Relations between the Indian community and the Labour Party are already strained” due to the “anti-Indian rhetoric contained in the emergency motion on Kashmir”, LFIN said in a statement.

This is certainly an attack being seized on by the Conservative candidate in Leicester East, Bhupen Dave, who has been focusing on the Kashmir motion to attack Labour. He’s not the only one, as Conservative MP Bob Blackman, whose seat of Harrow East has a large number of Hindus, has come out strongly in favour of India over Kashmir.

At a meeting of Conservative Friends of India early this year Blackman was alleged to have said that the Conservatives should work more closely with the Indian nationalist BJP party. Overseas Friends of BJP UK (OFBJP UK) and Friends of India Society International have said they will campaign for the Conservative Party in 48 marginal seats. OFBJP UK have also reportedly been in talks with Hindu temples about campaigning for the Conservatives, although this may affect their charitable status.

With the calling of the general election, Indian nationalist tensions have risen yet again. A recent report showed that WhatsApp is being used to circulate messages to British Hindus, calling on them not to vote for Labour. “Pass this to every TRUE Indian”, one reads, before going on to claim that “there are now no excuses left for any Indian to still be with the Labour Party”. The messages accuse Labour of being anti-India and anti-Hindu. Some include suggested talking points, like questioning Labour candidates about why in Pakistan “Hindu minor girls are, on a daily basis, being abducted and forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslims”.

Journalist Sunny Hundal compared these attacks to previous polarising campaigns among British Muslims and Sikhs. Either way, the messaging has already had a clear political effect, with Labour chairman Ian Lavery writing a letter in which he admitted that the Kashmir motion had caused offence and making clear that Labour “will not take a pro-Indian or pro-Pakistan stance on Kashmir”.

Lavery’s letter shows how much Labour fears losing these voters. Traditionally, Hindu voters have tended to lean towards Labour, but at the 2015 election the Conservatives received one million ethnic minority votes for the first time ever, and a post-election survey showed the Conservatives leading Labour with Hindus by 49% to 41%.

Both Conservatives and Labour sense that this election could decide which way Hindus choose to vote in future. In the more immediate term, securing Hindu support on December 12 could well be crucially important to who forms our next government.

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Guy Dampier is a senior consultant at Percival Group, a political consultancy