Incoming Labour looks to India - Hindustan Times
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Incoming Labour looks to India

ByHindustan Times
Jun 04, 2024 09:00 AM IST

This article is authored by Padraig Belton, senior journalist and chair of the Westminster Strategic Studies Group, United Kingdom.

With elections on July 4, it seems to be beginning of the end for Rishi Sunak-the United Kingdom (UK)'s 57th prime minister (PM) and first British Indian in Downing Street.

British Parliament
British Parliament

India looms large in the incoming government too. Tory cabinets with Suella Braverman, Priti Patel, and Alok Sharma on the frontbench mean Labour now needs to pull its socks up. Labour's support from British Indians--mightily 61% in 2010--plummeted to just 30% by the UK's last elections in 2019. British Indians, at two million the UK's largest minority, are prime swing-vote territory.

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Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, reading the room, launched a Labour Indians group--and dispatched Angela Rayner, David Lammy, and Jonathan Reynolds (his deputy PM and foreign and business secretaries in waiting) to Delhi and Mumbai this February. He aims to reverse Labour’s perceived tilt towards Pakistan over Kashmir, after years of nurturing Pakistani Brits in urban seats. His candidates include Satvir Laur in Southampton (first female Sikh to lead a UK local authority), (Bangalore-born) Ravi Venkatesh in Chippenham.

And Kanishka Narayan in the Vale of Glamorgan (who speaks Welsh).

Sunak may have called the surprise election to steal a march on the Reform Party, hoping to deny his more Brexity Right-wing rivals time to find candidates. But all the parties badly need bodies, and fast. With a record 79 Tory MPs giving July a miss (including Sharma), the Conservatives are holding last-minute Parliamentary Assessment Boards to restock their depleted cupboard of approved candidates.

Don't underestimate the challenges awaiting Sir Keir behind the Number 10 door. Opposition parties don’t usually lead by 25% if the country is in a happy place. The pressure to deliver change within the first 100 days means policy can be ill-thought-out. With the election his to lose, Keir Starmer hasn’t said too much about his plans (beyond more teachers, doctor's appointments, and police constables). Leave Sunak to his own devices, goes the thinking, and he will score a few own goals--like bringing back national service, to the dismay of service chiefs who don't want it. Sunak won't have time to deliver his main proposals before the election, either. This includes phasing out cigarette smoking, or sending asylum seekers to Rwanda--which Starmer promises to halt. Meaning after the UK gave Rwanda £220 million, it's possible not a single asylum seeker will ever be deported there.

This strategy--let Sunak campaign against himself, in an empty room--may come back to bite Starmer. Teachers, GPs, and bobbies on the beat will all need paying for. Conservatives will ask how. And there is a decent chance putting VAT on private school fees, much as it scratches an itch with some supporters, this could be fiscally negative as more students head to the State sector.

Foreign policy is a clearer picture. India will be a key partner against a daily more confrontational China. Binning post-Brexit talk of Global Britain, Lammy, setting out his stall as foreign secretary-in-waiting, called instead for a UK doctrine of realism. Even if Trump loses November's election in the United States, Starmer will have to deal with a more protectionist Washington, reluctant to play as prominent a role in Europe's security. The ‘special relationship’ will take a back seat to deeper relations with middle-sized powers in and outside of Europe. If and when Starmer finishes his stumble to Downing Street, he will also need to finally decide, after nine years, what his party's foreign policy towards the European Union will be.

A more interesting election will begin the morning July 5, that for Sunak's successor. While some will argue for a safe pair of hands, the rise of dissent groups around Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, have fed a narrative among members that the Conservatives’ fortunes are only feeble because they haven’t been Brexit enough, or offered enough red meat to hungry populists now voting Reform.

The bookies favour Kemi Badenoch (a culture warrior waging war on ‘woke’). Patel, Braverman, Penny Mordaunt (who polls best), and James Cleverly round out runners and riders, with Robert Jenrick (who paid £1,500 to paint over a Mickey Mouse mural at a children's asylum centre). Further back are Steve Barclay, Gillian Keegan, or Tugendhat (who makes much of being an army reservist). In perspective, they are fully a tenth of the 92 MPs polls suggest the Conservatives will keep.

Labour will pick up 479 (nicely beating Blair's thumping 1997 landslide of 418.). Sir Ed Davey's Liberals (knights in shining armour abound on today’s opposition benches) will soar from eight to 44. Reform will pick up none (though they outpoll the Libs, their support is more spread out.)

While business has not always yearned for Labour, it will breathe a sigh of relief after Truss—of the disastrous 2022 mini Budget—and a Johnson who was less than complimentary about business. But business and world capitals alike, after a 2019 general election that over five years sprouted three prime ministers and five chancellors, will be grateful to see stability at last.

This article is authored by Padraig Belton, senior journalist and chair of the Westminster Strategic Studies Group, United Kingdom.

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