In less than 24 hours, the UK goes to the polls to elect the next government and members of the 55th Parliament. Like general elections in every vibrant democracy around the world, this one, too, will be fought and won on local issues — employment, economy and domestic security.
However, the British Parliament, unlike most other advanced western democracies, has one distinct identity. The voice for better representation of ethnic minorities comprising Indians, among other South Asians, in Westminster is growing louder by the day. In the 54th Parliament that was dissolved in the second week of April, there were at least six members who could be definitely identified as persons of Indian origin — four from the ruling Labour Party and two from the Conservatives. In the upcoming elections, the Labour Party will field 53 candidates categorised as ethnic minorities and the opposition Conservatives, 44. The third largest party, Liberal Democrats, will field four candidates (of the 100 seats it hopes to win) of South Asian origin.
The major political parties fielding an increasingly larger number of ethnic minorities is not just a feel-good statement they try to make, but a necessity for any party that is serious about its position in the new Parliament. The average size of constituencies in the UK is far smaller than what it is in India. For a population of around 62 million, there are 650 members in the House of Commons, against 545 in the Lok Sabha in India representing a population of 1.2 billion. This distinction, therefore, makes a better representation of local population a basic necessity for any party that aspires to form the next government.
As per 2001 statistics, South Asians with a 4 per cent representation are the second largest ethnic group in the UK after the whites (92 per cent) who are mainly of British Isles descent. Among the South Asians, India has the largest representation at 1.8 per cent, followed by Pakistanis (1.3 per cent) and Bangladeshis (0.5 per cent).
With such a diverse population, immigration is one of the key platforms on which the election will be fought. In the run-up to the election, all three major parties made their stand on immigration loud and clear. The ruling Labour and Liberal Democrats took a less controversial stand, despite promising to tighten the UK's borders. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have promised to bring in a cap on immigration, much like the H1B visa system in the US. The Labour Party has promised to keep a check on immigration, but is not willing to put a cap. It has promised to continue with its point-based system in filtering the visa application it receives for prospective residents.
Virendara Sharma, sitting MP and Labour candidate contesting from Ealing Southall, believes immigration will be one of the issues on which this election will be fought. But he says skills shortage would force the government not to put in any definite ceiling on immigration as suggested by the Tories.
Deepak N Lalwani, director - India, with London-based stockbroking company Astaire Securities, believes immigration is an issue directly linked to the state of the domestic economy. This, therefore, makes it a key issue in the upcoming election with the UK recording an historical high of unemployment numbers at 2.5 million and an uncomfortable overall rise in government debt. In calendar year 2009, the UK recorded a general government deficit of £159.2 billion, which was equivalent to 11.4 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). At the end of December 2009 general government debt was £950.4 billion, equivalent to 68.1 per cent of GDP, according to latest data released by the UK's Office for National Statistics.
In the middle of the elections contested on economic and political issues, there is a bit of contest being fought here very much in the style and form of what is normally seen in India. The contest in Sharma's constituency stands out as a good example of this, where he will be opposing Tory member Gurcharan Singh, a former Labour member who defected to the Conservative party in 2007. In this particular constituency, communal representation is a key issue, where Singh's supporters want to see a "turbaned Sikh" to represent them in Westminster. The 75,000-odd electorate in Ealing Southall is roughly made up of 18 per cent Sikhs, 13 per cent Hindus and 11 per cent Muslims. Sharma's supporters say the rivalry in this particular constituency is clearly unique with personal attacks as a preferred tool to gain an upper hand.
Despite the election being fought on local issues, all three party leaders — Gordon Brown of Labour, David Cameron of Tories and Nick Clegg, Lib Dem, have vowed to strengthen the UK's relationship with India. As Lalwani says, all parties clearly see India as a major and rising economic force in the global arena. Irrespective of the outcome of the 2010 General Elections, UK-India relationship will not suffer and can only improve from where it is now.