Tehelka June 8, 2001

Apathy obscures poll issues for British Asians

Asians in Britain, especially the poor among them, are not charmed by Tony Blair, says Salil Tripathi

By Salil Tripathi

LONDON June 8: By mid-afternoon on June 7, Shabbir Mohammed, manager at an upmarket Asian restaurant in the south London area of Clapham, had decided to go home. A photograph in the window showed William Hague, the Conservative Party leader, visiting the restaurant; a 2001 calendar from the office of Keith Vaz, the beleaguered Labour Party minister sat on his desk.

It was the day of elections in Britain, the day the Labour Party was on the brink of a historic electoral victory -- for the first time in its 100-year-history, it was about to be re-elected for a full, five-year term, an achievement that had eluded previous Labour prime ministers -- Ramsay McDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.

Historically the party that aligned itself with the minorities, the Labour Party had taken the Asian vote for granted. Surely, they had reckoned, Asians would not want to vote for the Conservatives, who had made thinly-disguised appeals to the racist vote, by continuing to harp on "bogus asylum seekers", and Hague had even argued that Britain might turn into a foreign land.

In the end, many Asians like Shabbir did not vote at all. Shabbir left early so that he could stay at home and watch Pakistan thoroughly outplay England in the first one-day international in Birmingham. "This election just like election in Pakistan," he said. "Bhaisaab, they start writing to you at the time of elections, and say give me your vote. Then they go away for four years. What use are they for me?"

As Britain accepts the fact that the turnout of the elections which swept Tony Blair back to power with a landslide was at an 80-year-low of only about 60%, two separate trends are emerging among Asian voters. One is apathy, the result of a feeling, that mainstream political parties do not care for Asian concerns. The other is anger, at being singled out during the recent campaign for being sleazy.

To be sure, the Asian vote is important for political parties only in some marginal seats where the small Asian community could be influential in swinging the vote, or traditional Labour-supporting areas, like Bradford-Leeds, and some pockets of London in the north and southwest, and in other cities in the Midlands. In most of these constituencies, Labour emerged victorious. But that had less to do with Asian vote, and more with the fact that urban Britain is now firmly in the Labour camp, whereas Conservatives have only a tenuous hold on rural Britain. (The Tories have given up on Wales and Scotland, and are losing some key seats to the Liberal Democrats in southern England).

While Asians form a sizable proportion of the cities, in reality, they are too few to matter -- in the entire country of nearly 58 million people, Asians account for only 5% of the population. (During the fantastic all-night British coverage, it was impossible to find an Asian commentator holding forth and interpreting the election results; although there were a few Asian correspondents sprinkled around the country).

"What can we do?" Shabbir's colleague Iqbal asks. "Who cares about our concerns? About how we feel?"

Such apathy stems from the growing perception that neither party has Asian concerns in its mind. (To be fair, with only 5% of the population, congregated in a few pockets, there is no real reason why Asian concerns must dominate). The Conservative Party has veered to the right, and sees immigrants as a problem rather than an asset. William Hague talked about Britain turning into a foreign land in a famous speech earlier this year. While he explained he meant that to mean rule by Brussels, where the European Union is headquartered, his speech came at the time of the sustained Conservative campaign against asylum seekers. As a result, the perception was that his target was the non-white in Britain. An outgoing MP did not help by saying Britain threatened to turn into a mongrel nation. While the Conservatives named a few Asian candidates, only one, Shailesh Vara, was offered in a winnable seat, but he lost.

In contrast, Labour has historically claimed to champion ethnic minorities -- Robin Cook, the foreign secretary even said that the country's national dish was now chicken tikka masala -- and it elevated a few well-known Asians to the House of Lords. Prominent Labour leaders made sure that during their walk-abouts there were a few Asians around, to portray the party as truly multicultural. But that was tokenism. Its Asian connection in fact haunted the party -- its image was tarnished because of the Hinduja affair and the passport fiasco (which led to the resignation of Blair's right hand man, Peter Mandelson) and the Keith Vaz affair.

Vaz was the minister for Europe in the outgoing cabinet, but he was rarely out of the news -- for the wrong reasons. Newspapers continued to publish stories about the Vaz family's properties and business interests, which meant that the usually ebullient minister did not speak to the media at all during the entire campaign. He was returned to parliament from his Leicester East constituency, but few believe he will be reappointed a minister.

And the issues that mattered to the Asian voters were no longer concerning British politics, but the subcontinental strife. In a detailed article, the Independent pointed out how each party fielded an Asian candidate in a particular Midlands constituency, where the Asian voters were more concerned about that candidate's stance on Kashmir than on schools, hospitals, transport, or pensions, the four big issues for the general public. One voter told the Independent: "The Labour candidate is good, but he is a Sikh [Marsha Singh] so he may not champion Kashmir in the parliament."

Coupled with apathy came anger. With riots in Oldham, a Manchester suburb, in late May, followed by a clash between Bangladeshis and the police in Leeds in the days before the elections, many voters from the working class believed that the system is against them, and refused to go to vote, like Shabbir. And where they could, they voted for one of their own -- like Vaz -- with a vengeance. Shabbir says: "At my restaurant, all these white people come and ask why I have put Vaz's calendar. I say he has been helpful to us restaurant managers who want work permits for our chefs. The white people still complain and say Vaz is corrupt. I say he is not like Hamilton," a reference to a former Conservative minister who gained notoreity in John Major's last cabinet, and lost his seat in 1997 during the vote against the sleaze factor. While Vaz and Hinduja have certainly become household names in Britain, Labour's cupboard of
skeletons includes other, non-Asian names as well.

The majority of the Asians who voted clearly went with Labour -- while it had belied its promise, its alternative was much worse -- and in that they were not particularly different from most British voters yesterday. Disgruntled Labour supporters have found several parties representing their views -- the Socialist Alliance, the Greens, and arguably, the Liberal Democrats. The Asians have not yet found such a party. If they do, that might fragment the politics further; and sullen voters can be dangerous for any party.

As Labour embarks on its historic second term, analysts are saying it will need to bear in mind that the endorsement it has received has been a grudging one. It can't take the voters for granted. The same axiom applies to the Asian vote in Britain.