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
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.