What does Labour think it’s doing in Batley and Spen by issuing a leaflet hostile to India’s Prime Minister?
Criticism of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives one understands. It may be unfair – but, hey, that’s by-elections for you.
Why, though, is the Opposition risking the alienation of some 1.2 million Indian-origin voters, if it picks up after the by-election where this leads off? For an answer, we must turn to the disputed territory of Kashmir.
MPs of all parties with Indian-origin constituents tend to take the Indian Government’s view (which is that all of Kashmir belongs to India, including the bits currently controlled by Pakistan)…
…though those with Pakistani-origin constituents don’t always take the Pakistan Government’s view (which is that all of Kashmir belongs to Pakistan, with the exception of parts ceded by Pakistan to China during the 1960s.)
This is because roughly 70 per cent of Britain’s Pakistani-origin population is actually Kashmiri – or Mirpuri, as some put it: that’s to say, they hail from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. There is strong support among the Mirpuris for a referendum of all Kashmiris to decide the future of the former princely state: self-determination.
Some of them want an independent Kashmir. Some, a merger with Pakistan. At any rate, MPs with Pakistani-origin or Kashmiri-origin or Mirpuri-origin constituents (take your pick on the terminology) tend to support the self-determination poistion.
So far, so predictable. MPs amplify the views of their constituents. Nothing surprising or wrong with that.
But until Labour’s annual party conference in 2019, policy on Kashmir was essentially bipartisan. Government and Opposition took the same position: that Kashmir is a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve.
However, the conference voted for a motion critical of India and stating that “the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination.” In short, it took the Mirpuri position.
This would have mattered less were this not also Jeremy Corbyn’s. The Indian High Commission cancelled a dinner reception with the Labour Friends of India, which itself protested about the change of approach to the party leadership. The controversy spilled over into the 2019 general election.
According to Sunder Katwala on this site:
“The Conservatives paid particular attention to winning British Indian-origin voters – but with very patchy results. In Harrow East, where Bob Blackman is the only Conservative to represent a ‘minority-majority’ seat, he outperformed colleagues across London by winning an increased majority on a five per cent swing to the Conservatives. There was also a dramatic 15 per cent swing to the Conservatives in Leicester East – a constituency where six out of ten votes are Indian-origin – after Keith Vaz stood down in ignominy, replaced by Labour NEC member Claudia Webbe. Labour’s majority was reduced from 30,000 to 6,000, but Webbe still won over 50 per cent of the vote.”
Sunder was dismissive of the claim that the Conservatives made significant progress among Indian-origin voters, claiming that “analysis suggests these results reflected local dynamics, rather than a national pattern”.
However, Keir Starmer may not have seen it the same way; or he may have worried about Labour’s electoral future in seats like these; or be concerned about its relationship with one of the world’s biggest rising powers; or he may have been lobbied effectively – or all four.
At any rate, he returned Labour’s approach back to the status quo ante last year: “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,” he said.
The long and short of it is that Labour, being better represented than the Conservatives in seats with large numbers of Indian and Pakistani voters, is especially vulnerable to capture by communalism.
The party’s approach is being swung this way and that by its needs of the moment. And as we feared, the centrality which George Galloway is giving to the Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan disputes is having a knock-on effect on Labour.
This vile by-election campaign highlights the risk of Labour being dragged into an explicitly anti-Israel, anti-India position by pressure from Galloway and others to its left…
…With the Conservatives being manouevered, or moving deliberately, towards the opposite position. Batley and Spen offers a warning glimpse of sectarianism infecting the mainstream of British politics.