Author : Ashraf Nehal

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 02, 2024

Amidst a potential political shift in the UK ahead of the polls, Indian-origin MPs remain instrumental in shaping the nation’s legislative landscape.

Indian-origin representation in UK politics:  A 2024 election perspective

Source Image: Times of India

As the United Kingdom (UK) approaches its general election on 4 July 2024, the Labour Party appears poised for victory, rallying behind the slogan “It's time for change”. Against this backdrop of potential political transformation, the role and representation of Indian-origin members of the Parliament (MPs) continue to significantly shape the nation's legislative landscape. The increasing presence of Indian-origin politicians in the UK Parliament reflects both rising political engagement and the broader success of British Indians. Data supports this: Indian households lead in high-income brackets, with 42 percent earning £1,000+ weekly in 2015-2018. While comprising 3.1 percent of the UK population, they contribute over 6 percent to GDP, indicating significant economic and potential political influence.

This trend has been marked by several milestones, most notably Rishi Sunak's appointment as the UK's first Prime Minister of colour in 2022. As Labour Party campaigns for change, the Hindu community, now the third-largest religious group in England, is asserting its political voice more strongly than ever. The release of the first-ever “Hindu Manifesto UK 2024” by a coalition of 29 leading Hindu organisations signals a coordinated effort to advance community interests and demands, calling for recognition of anti-Hindu hate as a religious hate crime and equal representation, among other key issues.

This trend has been marked by several milestones, most notably Rishi Sunak's appointment as the UK's first Prime Minister of colour in 2022.

The political landscape is evolving, with some long-serving Indian-origin MPs like Labour's Virendra Sharma stepping down, making way for new faces. As the election approaches, the British Hindu community, numbering over a million and constituting 3 percent of the total population, represents a significant electoral force. Their growing numbers and increasing political awareness are likely to play a crucial role in the upcoming election, potentially influencing outcomes in key constituencies as Labour seeks to capitalise on its message of change and return to power.

Key issues for Indian-Origin MPs 

Indian-origin MPs are addressing key issues ahead of the 2024 UK general elections, focusing on concerns relevant to the diaspora and broader societal challenges. Anti-Hindu hate has emerged as a significant problem, with the Henry Jackson Society reporting instances of discrimination in schools. The “Hindu Manifesto UK 2024” calls for the recognition of Hinduphobia as a specific category of religious hate crime, highlighting the need for increased protection of Hindu communities and places of worship.

Immigration and citizenship policies remain crucial, with MPs advocating for fair and transparent regulations that acknowledge the Indian diaspora's contributions. This includes efforts to streamline visa processes, work permit applications, and naturalisation procedures. Concurrently, there's a push for greater representation in political and media spheres, as British Hindus seek to increase their visibility in councils, the Parliament, and mainstream media.

Immigration and citizenship policies remain crucial, with MPs advocating for fair and transparent regulations that acknowledge the Indian diaspora's contributions.

Educational reform is another priority, particularly regarding the teaching of Hinduism in schools. Reports indicate that current approaches often lead to misconceptions and bullying. MPs are calling for more accurate and respectful curriculum content, as well as improved handling of faith-targeted hate incidents in educational settings. This effort aims to address the concerns raised about the quality of teaching on Hinduism and its impact on Hindu students.

Economic and healthcare improvements are central to the current agenda, with MPs focusing on enhancing UK-India trade relations and promoting bilateral investment by leveraging historical and cultural connections. Additionally, there is a concerted effort to improve access to healthcare and social welfare programmes, especially for vulnerable segments of the Indian diaspora. These initiatives underscore the intricate balance of identity, integration, and socioeconomic considerations shaping the diaspora's political priorities. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has criticised the governing Conservatives under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for failing to deliver on their promises regarding relations with India and has announced that it is prepared to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) if it wins the upcoming elections.

Indian-origin MPs and candidates across political parties

In the outgoing Parliament, there were 15 Indian-origin MPs— eight from Labour and seven from the Conservative party—among 65 non-whites elected, reflecting 10 percent of its strength and making it ethnically the most diverse house in British political history, setting a new record for the 1.5 million-strong community.

The Conservative Party, which has been running the government for 14 years and is bearing the brunt of anti-incumbency, have several prominent Indian-origin MPs seeking re-election. Shailesh Vara, a solicitor by profession, has retained his North West Cambridgeshire seat since May 2005. Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West, and Priti Patel, MP for Witham, have both retained their seats since 2010. Rishi Sunak, elected MP for Richmond (Yorkshire) in 2015, now serves as the Prime Minister. Gagan Mohindra was the MP for South West Hertfordshire before the dissolution of Parliament. Claire Coutinho, of Goan Christian descent, was elected as an MP from East Surrey and holds the post of Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero. All except Alok Sharma are recontesting. The Conservatives have also announced new candidates, including Shivani Raja for Leicester East and Ameet Jogia for Hendon. Abbas Merali, a Kenyan-Gujarati Muslim councillor, is running for Parliament in Harrow West against Labour Friends of India’s Gareth Thomas who has also been the successive MP from the constituency. 

The Liberal Democrats have fielded several Indian-origin candidates. Munira Wilson, elected as an MP from Twickenham in 2019, is seeking re-election. Other candidates include Gayathri Sathyanath for Havant, Anita Prabhakar for Nottingham East, Parmjit Singh Gill for West Bromwich, and Dhruv Sengupta for Feltham & Heston.

The Labour Party, poised for a landslide victory in the upcoming elections with its rallying call for change, boasts an unprecedented number of Indian-origin MPs and first-time candidates, marking a historic triumph for diversity in British politics. Navendu Mishra represents the Stockport constituency. Preet Kaur Gill, the first British Sikh female MP, was re-elected from Birmingham Edgbaston in 2019 and serves as the Shadow Minister for Primary Care and Public Health. Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh MP, represents Slough. Other Labour MPs include Lisa Nandy (Wigan), Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston), and Valerie Vaz (Walsall South). Virendra Sharma, who has represented the Ealing Southall constituency since 1997 from the Labour Party, has announced he will not seek re-election in the 2024 polls.

The Labour Party, poised for a landslide victory in the upcoming elections with its rallying call for change, boasts an unprecedented number of Indian-origin MPs and first-time candidates, marking a historic triumph for diversity in British politics.

Among the first-time Labour candidates are former London Deputy Mayor Rajesh Agarwal (Leicester East), Baggy Shanker (Derby South), Uday Nagaraju (North Bedfordshire), Hajira Piranie (Harborough, Oadby and Wingston), Shama Tatler (Chingford and Woodford Green), Kanishka Narayan (Vale of Glamorgan), Ryan Jude (Tatton) and Primesh Patel (Harrow East). Hajira and Ryan are running for election in constituencies where Labour last won in 1945 and hasn't secured a victory since the formation of the seat. Other Labour Indian candidates include Harpreet Uppal, Jas Athwal, Jeevun Sandher, Kirith Entwistle, Pavitar Mann, Satvir Kaur, Sojan Joseph, Sureena Brackenbridge, and Warinder Juss.

The rise in Indian-origin candidates across parties suggests a probable increase in their parliamentary representation, potentially exceeding the previous high of 15 MPs. This trend reflects growing political integration and parties' emphasis on diversity.

Shifting political allegiances and challenges

The political landscape for British Indians has undergone significant changes in recent years, particularly in their relationship with the Labour Party. During Jeremy Corbyn's tenure as Labour leader, the party experienced a notable decline in support from the Indian community, largely due to Corbyn's controversial stance on Kashmir and perceived anti-India bias. The growing influence of India's BJP in campaigning for UK Conservatives further eroded Labour's traditional support base among British Indians.

Economic factors have played a crucial role in this political realignment. As the British Indian community has prospered economically, their political priorities have evolved, leading some to align more closely with Conservative policies. Simultaneously, the rise of Hindu nationalism in India has reverberated within the UK's Indian diaspora, influencing political preferences and community dynamics.

Under Keir Starmer's leadership, Labour is attempting to rebuild its relationship with the Indian community. The party is increasing engagement, fielding more Indian-origin candidates, and renewing outreach efforts. Labour is also shifting its foreign policy approach and focusing on domestic issues important to British Indians. However, challenges remain, including Conservative gains under Rishi Sunak, religious divisions within the community, and generational differences in political leanings.

The political landscape for Indian-origin candidates is not without controversies. For instance, Sonia Kumar, contesting from Dudley North for Labour, was targeted by the incumbent Conservative MP Marco Longhi in a controversial letter to British Pakistani voters, potentially exploiting religious and ethnic tensions. The case of Keith Vaz, a former Labour MP now contesting independently, further highlights the complexities of political careers in this context. Vaz resigned as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016 following a scandal involving allegations of soliciting male sex workers and offering to purchase illegal drugs. He was later suspended from the House of Commons in 2019, effectively ending his Labour Party career

These incidents underscore the delicate balance that Indian-origin politicians must maintain between representing their communities, adhering to party lines, and navigating the broader political landscape. They also highlight the ongoing challenges of addressing discrimination, communal tensions, and ethical conduct in politics. As the 2024 election approaches, the Indian-origin community's voting patterns will likely reflect these multifaceted influences and the effectiveness of parties' outreach efforts.

Ashraf Nehal is a Prime Minister's Young Writing Fellow and regularly contributes columns on South Asian politics.

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