Here's why UK Labour leader Starmer is reaching out to India

The head of the opposition Labour Party in Britain, Keir Starmer, recently stated that “a strategic partnership with India will be key” to a future Labour administration, underscoring an effort on his party’s side to forge deeper links with both India and British Indians. The UK will hold elections sometime in January 2025.

The British MP said, “There are a number of issues in the Labour Party where, over the last two years, we have openly taken the decision to change our party to look out to the world in a different way – and to recognise when it comes to India, what an incredible, powerful, important country it is.” The British MP was speaking on Monday, June 26, at the India Global Forum’s UK-India Week 2023, a conference of Indian and British representatives for cooperation in London.

British Indians are the largest minority ethnic group in the UK and have historically been associated with the Labour Party’s left-wing wing. Recent General Election victories for the ruling Conservative Party and the appointment of prominent Conservatives of Indian ancestry to key public positions have prompted Labour to make an effort to recoup lost ground.

There were 1.4 million persons of Indian origin living in the UK as of the 2011 England and Wales census, or 2.5 percent of the total population.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UK in 2015, it was “A time when the British Indian community was growing in stature and showing signs of political evolution,” according to a 2021 research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. According to historical survey statistics, British Indians, like the majority of other ethnic minorities, have consistently supported the Labour Party on the left.

It makes reference to a 2010 survey of ethnic minority voters in the UK, which revealed that 68% of them supported the Labour Party. It can be linked, among other things, to the Conservatives’ resistance to immigration

Recent “extant survey data, as well as anecdotal evidence, have indicated that the community’s political leanings are shifting,” according to the Carnegie study, especially with regard to British Hindus.

In a 2021 The Guardian article, Devesh Kapur, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Caroline Duckworth, and Milan Vaishnav from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Programme examined this.

It stated that Labour was remained the preferred party for the majority (54%) of those surveyed, notwithstanding the Conservatives’ gains among Indian and Indian-origin voters at the expense of Labour. However, this is a decline from prior elections, and many voters said that they were unsure of their vote. They might then have a significant impact on the outcomes of hotly contested electoral races.

Additionally, there are differences based on age and religion, with younger voters supporting Labour more. “The majority of respondents who identified as Muslim or Sikh said they would support Labour in a general election, but Christians and Hindus said they would support the Conservatives the most. Given their relative demographic weight, Hindu voters’ exodus from Labour is a major factor in the party’s problems with British Indians, according to the article.

There are a few things to note here. Firstly, with successive electoral defeats in general elections since 2010, support for Labour has not been particularly strong across the board among the British populace. Labour gained 202 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons in 2019; this was their lowest number since 1935.

Second, the Conservative Party has prominently run candidates of Indian descent, with Rishi Sunak’s appointment as prime minister representing the highest point in the community’s political representation.

Additionally, as noted in a 2017 article in The Conversation by Rakib Ehsan, a doctoral researcher in political science at the Royal Holloway University of London, Indians have come to represent the well-off, highly educated classes, and their interests no longer closely align with the pro-welfare stances taken by the Labour Party and leaders like former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Furthermore, it’s possible that certain Labour Party political stances on domestic Indian issues have had an impact on the Hindu vote among British Indians. Following the repeal of Article 370, which had until that point conferred a unique status to the former Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Labour passed a motion in August 2019 under Corbyn. The resolution demanded that the Kashmiri people be granted the right to self-determination because there was a humanitarian catastrophe in the disputed territory. Additionally, it demanded that foreign observers be permitted access to the area, according to The Guardian.

However, during his term so far, Starmer has emphasised outreach. Kashmir is a bilateral problem for India and Pakistan, he stated after assuming the party’s top position in 2020.

Starmer officially revived the Labour Convention of Indian Organisations (LCIO) in 2022 during a special India-focused event held in conjunction with the party’s annual conference. The timing, according to Starmer, “is poignant as people around the world celebrate 75 years of Indian independence.”

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