Last week, I found a pamphlet of a budding political party innocuously placed next to my door. It embossed a pulp and a round
South Asian face wearing a blue tie. Or was it a purple tie? I cannot remember. The party manifesto intrigued me the most. Notwithstanding the poor grammar, which showed the carelessness on part of the party candidate, it was the ambitious claims that interested me.
As a Member of Parliament (MP), he promised to nationalise transport, improve health services, reduce housing cost and, wait for it, improve global trade. The manifesto’s language did not only lack grammar, it lacked sense and logic too.
How interesting then, that two days later on a warm Sunday morning in East London, UK, my friend noticed him across the road. He was walking with purpose, canvassing and raising awareness of his candidacy, and honestly speaking with shopkeepers and fruit vendors about the general elections.
We approached him as he exited a grocery shop. He spoke in a slow, careful, rather modulated tone with a hint of a Punjabi accent. I had places to be so I was rather blunt,
“Do you honestly think you can win in East Ham?”
I suppose it is a genuine question because the East Ham constituency is Labour’s permanent seat. Stephen Tims, the Labour candidate, won the last election by the largest majority in the UK.
“Sure we can,” he replied.
“Why should I vote for you?”
“Well, Labour and Conservatives are not good for us.”
He explained that Labour doesn’t understand South Asian problems like domestic violence, parking and housing. When I suggested that housing has nothing to do with ethnicity but political economy, he asked my friends and I to visit him in his office for further discussion as he had more leaflets to stamp in the grocery shops.
I don’t think this candidate will win, but he rides on a feeling emerging within the South Asian community in Britain. Labour has now lost its exclusive rights. However, one or two decades earlier, it was the only option for South Asians. This is not the case anymore and there are several reasons for it.
Let me just mention a few.
First, the Iraq war and the support for American policies didn’t go down well within the South Asian community. There was a suggestion that the Muslim vote cost Labour important council seats after the Iraq war.
Secondly, many first generations that came to the UK as low paid workers have now moved up the economic ladder. The Conservative party offers appealing tax breaks.
“I will vote Conservative”, my friend told me, “Because my father will vote Conservative.”
And her father votes conservative because he falls into the high income bracket.
Thirdly, Conservatives have resorted to the divide and rule policy. Zac Goldsmith’s London Mayoral Campaign sent targeted leaflets to Hindus, Sikhs and Tamils to vote against Sadiq Khan. It didn’t work then but the man behind the strategy, Lynton Crosby, is now the campaign strategist for Theresa May.
In the midst of these complicating affairs, the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders in America, is the most interesting story of this general election. The Labour Manifesto, talks about raising taxes on the rich (those earning more than £80,000), abolition of tuition fees, free lunches for pupils, support for disabled people, not only fair immigration but also fair living for immigrants, national living wage and ending the freeze on welfare benefits. The basic drivers of the Labour Manifesto are the principles of equality and fairness.
Despite the rhetoric, Labour, according to all the polls, will lose this election and the reason, many suggest, is Corbyn. Criticism with Corbyn unfortunately begins at home, part of which is because of the historical split within his own party.
Ruth Winstone wrote in the 1995 introduction of Tony Benn’s diaries, that party conflict prevents Labour from winning elections or holding onto power for a long duration.
“These contradictions have in practice meant that every Labour leader, from Attlee to Kinnock, has been caught” between the various party interests. Corbyn, the left-wing activist is no different.
With Corbyn, those inner party conflicts are a public spectacle. From outright opposition on issues such as Syrian intervention to a no confidence vote from Labour MPs, these inner conflicts harm the image of a party leader. When many of his own party members oppose him publicly, how can he gain the publics trust?
Then come the personal attacks from the opposition like, he is too ‘scruffy’, he is an anti-national, or he is a crazy communist. All summed up in David Cameron’s attack during the prime minister’s questions last year,
“Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem”, Cameron quipped.
The personal attacks are not new. A video interview of 1984, available on YouTube, shows how even then, Corbyn was criticised for not wearing a proper suit. These attacks haven’t stopped even now. As the election date approaches, the personal attacks get even more personal. May suggested that Corbyn will be ‘alone and naked’ during the Brexit election.
There is of course a proper critique of Corbyn’s policies; one is that there aren’t enough funds for all these policies. This criticism is partly rational but mainly ideological. It is true that generating funds isn’t easy and a proper taxation policy will have to be established, and it is very much possible. However, it is the ideological argument which is difficult to discredit because no amount of facts could challenge the ideology. In a neoliberal world, every social program faces the same criticism canonised by Ronald Reagan,
“The nine most terrifying words in English language are, ‘I am from the government and here to help’.”
Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, infamously cut social spending to reduce the influence of the state. However, the influence of the state didn’t decline; it only changed its course. During her reign, the net spending stayed the same. The only difference was that money was being spent to support the rich, through subsidies, and not the poor.
Corbyn’s policies are indicative of what the Labour’s Manifesto holds for ethnic minorities. This year, Tariq Modood, a professor at University of Bristol, found that the person with an English sounding name gets three times more interviews than a person with a Muslim name. Something similar was found in the US where black sounding names were at an overwhelming disadvantage. This is a serious problem and even the second generation migrants stand at a disadvantage. Labour’s Race and Faith Manifesto tackles this problem. For example, Corbyn supports the introduction of the name-blind recruitment process where the name of the applicant will be hidden from those selecting for an interview.
The alternative is the Conservative party, which has introduced benefit cuts and welfare cuts affecting vulnerable groups. Increase in university fees and cuts in school spending affects those for whom education is the only route out of poverty. National Health Service (NHS) cuts will likely lead to harrowing consequences for many families. New students, outside the European Union (EU), will have to pay higher NHS charges, attracting even fewer foreign students.
Corbyn’s unlikely rise to the political stage of Labour party is a wonderful opportunity for those who want politics to be less about style and more about substance. It is one of the decisive moments in British politics and I hope minorities understand how important this election is and what it entails.
Noam Chomsky, one of the most humanist intellectuals of our time, when asked about Corbyn, replied that if he were voting in this election, he would vote for Corbyn.
I am not afraid of Corbyn failing to deliver his pledges. I know that strong British institutions and the public can hold him accountable if he fails to fulfil his commitments. But I am still rooting for him to be in that position. The next step begins after that. In democratic societies, political accountability plays an important role. Just Google Nick Clegg
First Published: 6 June 2017