At a Vaisakhi event in the Parliament a few weeks ago, a Sikh Federation spokesman during his speech said the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had posed a new challenge to the British political system and Sikhs in Britain. He can joke and say; “I have more Sikh Ministers than Modi” by having four Sikhs in his Cabinet, including the high profile appointment of Defence Minister.
What has taken place in Canada raises the focus on the broader question of political representation of Sikhs in the UK. In Canada Sikhs comprise around 2% of the population, but more than 5% or 17 of the 338 MPs elected last November were of Sikh origin, including a number of women and five turban wearing Sikhs.
In the UK, Sikhs comprise around 1% of the population. On this basis the UK Parliament of 650 MPs should have six or seven Sikh MPs, but currently there are no Sikh MPs. The Sikh Network is about to launch the UK Sikh Survey, the largest survey of its kind that the Sikh Federation (UK) believes will demonstrate Sikhs are more politically active than most communities in terms of both party membership and identification with political parties. However, Sikhs are not seeing this translated by political parties, working with the Sikh community, into more Sikh men and women being represented at a local or national level in politics. Sikhs only have around one-third of the councillors they should have compared to their population.
Following boundary changes the 650 MPs is set to reduce by 50 for 2020. This will make it even harder for any Sikhs to be elected in four years time as there appears to be limited appetite for changing behaviour and practices within political parties to ensure Sikhs are selected in winnable seats. By elections offer an ideal opportunity for political parties to prove they are serious about greater Sikh representation. This was a key issue raised in the Sikh Manifesto launched before last year’s General Election.
The focus is on the Labour Party as it has traditionally been supported by the Sikh community, but has steadily been losing Sikh support as it has often taken the Sikh community vote for granted. The Labour Party’s current position on representation is problematic. The difficulty is not only there are no Sikh MPs, at one time Labour peaked with three MPs, but the Labour Party has also chosen not to have any Sikh representation in the House of Lords since the death of Lord King of West Bromwich in January 2013.
Whilst the Conservatives have two Sikhs in the House of Lords the Labour Party knows the situation is indefensible. The Labour Party leadership need to use the opportunity to work with the Prime Minister and ensure a number of Sikhs are appointed to the House of Lords at the earliest opportunity. Through our ongoing positive dialogue with the Labour leadership we are confident this will happen. Those appointed should be role models and send a very positive signal to members of the Sikh community across the UK. For this to be achieved they should be visible Sikhs, well known within the Sikh community and possess the skills, professional background and attributes to be able to make a positive contribution in the House of Lords.
We have welcomed and been encouraged by Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who has made a public commitment that that he will ensure the Labour Party will have Sikh representation in Parliament and is in the process of making changes. The Labour leadership decision on who will be put forward for the House of Lords this July is being closely monitored to see if the party is listening to the grassroots on those most able to make a difference in the Lords for the Labour Party and the Sikh community.
However, the Tooting by election offers the Labour Party an opportunity to start the process of change by having a credible Sikh candidate on the shortlist. When Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London three Sikhs living and/or working in London who could all be credible candidates that have the experience and a track record to be excellent candidates immediately came to mind. Parmjit Dhanda who was an MP between 2001 and 2010 and is currently standing for Labour’s NEC, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi who was the Labour candidate in Gravesham in 2015 and Jas Athwal who has been an exceptional Labour leader of the Council in Redbridge.
The Sikh Federation (UK) and Sikh Network has been in contact with all three who are suitably qualified and experienced to provide excellent representation in Westminster for the people of Tooting. We expect at least one of them to make a serious challenge to be shortlisted for Tooting so the Labour Party membership in Tooting is given a better choice of candidates. In all honesty other Sikhs who think they may have a chance to be selected in Tooting lack the experience and gravitas. Those on the NEC’s shortlisting sub-committee will no doubt take note of the issues we have raised.