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Brownian motion in UK polls

Whether or not Gordon Brown manages to hang on as prime minister, the new British parliament that is to be inaugurated next month will look more brown than ever before, reports Dipankar De Sarkar.

world Updated: Apr 24, 2010 00:51 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

Whether or not Gordon Brown manages to hang on as prime minister, the new British parliament that is to be inaugurated next month will look more brown than ever before.

An analysis of the Black and Asian candidates’ list of the three main political parties — made available to the Hindustan Times — shows that the House of Commons could welcome at least 11 South Asian MPs, including at least six of Indian origin after May 6. The final figure is likely to be higher.

Some of them will be sitting MPs defending safe seats — such as Britain’s senior Indian-origin MP Keith Vaz of the ruling Labour party and his Conservative counterpart Shailesh Vara — but there will also be a smattering of new faces. Together Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have put up 131 Black and Asian candidates.

In an election that may well lead to Britain’s first hung parliament since 1974, every ethnic minority vote is being wooed — it could mean the difference between forming that government and staying out.

Some estimates say there are up to 113 ‘marginal seats’ where the population of Black and Asian voters is larger than candidates’ winning majorities in the last 2005 election.

At least 50 of these seats are thought to be ‘very marginal’ — key battlegrounds amid nervous predictions of a slender majority for the largest party in the new parliament.

Of the 131 candidates, 86 are ethnic South Asians and of them, 34 are of Indian origin. However, many have been selected — by all three parties — for constituencies where their chances of winning are remote.

Among Indian-origin candidates who are likely to make it to parliament are Vaz, his sister Valerie Vaz (they will be the first Asian brother and sister lawmakers) and Virendra Sharma from Labour; Shailesh Vara and Priti Patel from the Conservative party; and Parmjit Gill of the Liberal Democrats.

Two more Indian-origin Conservative candidates — Alok Sharma and Paul Uppal — are said to be in with a chance.

In the wider South Asian context, Labour is likely to have more MPs of Pakistani origin than the Conservatives, who have selected a larger number of Indian-origin candidates in relatively safe seats.

Britain currently has nine South Asians, including five who are of Indian origin, among a total of 15 Black and Asian MPs. However, both Labour and Conservatives have stoutly resisted a proposal for all-ethnic shortlists in selected urban seats — along the lines of informal all-women shortlists introduced by Tony Blair after he became prime minister in 1997.

Of the three main political parties, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats was the only leader who supported the proposal when it was tabled in parliament last year.

Ironically, with the ratings heaving seismically toward the Liberal Democrats after Clegg won the first two of three televised election debates, this all-important party is likely to turn up in parliament with just one Asian MP — Parmjit Singh Gill.

He is undaunted: “As a Liberal I follow in the footsteps of Dadabhai Naoroji,” said Gill, referring to the Indian National Congress founder who became the first British Asian MP in 1892. The lopsided composition of the House of Commons can sometimes find a reflection in debates about immigration that are guided by perception rather than hard data.

Last week, in the middle of a poll campaign that has been largely free of race and migration rhetoric from the mainstream parties, the mayor of a town in southwest England posted a joke on Facebook: “Illegal immigrants are like sperm – millions of them come in but only one works.”

Although Sue Mills drew swift condemnations, some MPs are convinced that getting more Blacks and Asians into parliament is important to the future of modern Britain.

“Party leaders are useless at this,” admitted one well-regarded candidate, fighting in a constituency with a large Asian population. “It’s only the voters that can make the difference. At the end of the day, if our people don’t vote for us, then we are not going to make it.”