As compared to the older generation, the current lot of British Punjabi politicians is more passionate about the wider society. This has helped them break the confines of ‘identity, home politics and past issues’ and become more acceptable in the core of mainstream politics.
Shifting sands of British politics
- The number of British-Punjabis of Indian Origin (BPI-O) in the House of Commons is below par.
- Earlier BPI-O candidates were passionate about identity, home politics and past issues.
- The present lot are descendants of thirdfourth gen migrants and espouse wider societal issues.
- But they remain active on community issues and got the Labour to promise a probe into British role in 1984 Operation Blue Star.
- The contest for 8 Labour BPI-O candidates is tougher because many of their voters had opted for Brexit.
- Elsewhere in Europe the fears about the ‘other’ have been rationalised and adopted by the Centre-Right. In Britain too, Conservatives are on a similar trajectory.
The June 8 general election has a new significance for Britain’s Punjabis of Indian-origin (BPI-O). One of their big hopes is that their numbers in the House of Commons will more than double. The dissolved legislature had only two BPI-O MPs out of 41 from the Asian Black and Minority Ethnic (ABME) population. Demographically, there should be 84 ABME and 8 BPI-O MPs in the elected House of 650.
This time so far, 11 BPI-O candidates are standing on the tickets of two largest political parties (eight Labour and three Conservative). Most of their constituencies have a sizeable proportion of ABME votes. However, race and ethnicity factors are less significant than the candidate’s political affiliation, caliber, and public contribution. In the past, for example, two BPI-O MPs Ashok Kumar and Paramjit Singh Dhandawere were elected from mainly white population constituencies. Britain’s first-ever elected Indian-Punjabi MP Piara Singh Khambra represented a racially and ethnically diverse constituency. He was succeeded by Virinder Sharma who has been continuously elected and is a candidate again.
This general election is opening a new political chapter for the Britain’s Punjabi community of Indian origin as most of the 11 candidates are experienced local councillors, civic and community activists or professionals from the second-third generation of migrant workers who settled in Britain after the Second World War. As compared with the activists and campaigners from the previous generation, the emerging politicians are more passionate about the ‘here, now and future’ issues relating to the wider society across the mainstream of politics.
Over the past 70 years much of the political activism of the BPI-O community has remained on the margins of the mainstream politics or confined to the ‘identity, home politics and past issues’ although many of their activities and campaigns have involved issues of relating to the minorities. Persistent lobbying has achieved a manifesto commitment from the Labour Party for an inquiry into Britain’s military role in the 1984 Operation Blue Star. The Conservative Government’s ‘free schools and academies’ provision has enabled Sikhs, Hindus and others to set up their schools.
The contest is tougher for most of the eight Labour candidates of Indian-Punjabi origin as Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives are the favourites. Because a large proportion of Labour voters opted for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, they may vote for the Conservatives for the first time. This could also happen with 25% of South Asian origin who also voted for leaving the EU. A popular perception is that the May Government may secure a better Brexit deal. The economy has improved and the economic data is favourable to the government. Moreover, it is believed that a Conservative government is more likely to find new alternative international trade to make up for any loss which may occur by exiting the EU.
The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a long-standing conviction socialist politician and the party’s election campaign is focusing on a radical domestic agenda to secure the support of traditional centre-left and younger voters. The Labour’s best hope is to secure a respectable strength to run a strong opposition. But, the UK’s recent economic growth is peaking-off and if May does not succeed in achieving an acceptable Brexit deal, nationalistic tensions could strain the UK Union. The pro-Remain/EU majority in Scotland, N Ireland and Gibraltar may begin to demand differential political settlements. A change in circumstances during the next parliamentary term could convince a currently fragmented opposition to form a Labour-led pan-UK progressive centrist alliance under a new leadership to protect the UK Union and to work for a pragmatic settlement with the EU. This scenario could bring many voters back to their traditional political roots. BPI-Os support more autonomy for Scotland, but disfavour the SNP’s separatist tendency. The post-election performance of economy and Brexit outcomes can change the course of UK politics.
If Theresa May’s new government keeps the economy stable and achieves a suitable Brexit settlement, their new support from the centre-right Labour and many ABME voters would stay. A rise of far-right populism in the West is slightly levelling-off, as reflected from the recent voting behaviour in Europe. The broader centre-right has rationalised and adopted the stereotyped perception of the `other’, helping it win in Austria, Holland and France, and, possibly Germany in September. If the left-led Labour party does match its current strength of 229 MPs, Corbyn will come under pressure to resign. Opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives will add to their recent strength of 330 MPs as many pro-Brexit UKIP votes are also switching their support to them.
So in the era of change across the UK politics, the next parliamentary term will be an historic one for future of the polity and the minorities will be impacted by it. For the BPI-Os it would make good political sense to move towards the mainstream of politics to be effective in influencing the governing and opposition parties on issues which concern them most. The 11 BPI-O candidates are running a well organised campaign by pulling in support from a cross-section of constituency volunteers to mobilise voters and to get them out to vote.
Eight are contesting as Labour and three as Conservative candidates: Virinder Sharma, Sima Malhotra and Tanmanjit Singh Dhesi are defending safer Labour seats. Samir Jassal is contesting on a Conservative ticket against Labour’s Sima Malhotra who is defending her large previous majority. Preet Kaur Gill and Kuldip Singh Sahota are standing as Labour and Paul Singh Uppal as Conservative candidates from the West Midlands’ three winnable marginal seats. Roki Singh Gill, Manjinder Singh Kang and Bally Singh are Labour hopefuls and Reena Ranger is a Conservative contestant. Whatever are the election results, at least Britain’s Punjabis of Indian-origin have commenced their journey towards the mainstream of British politics.
The writer is an Indian-origin educationist, writer and researcher living in Britain
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