One of the novel developments of British political life in recent years has been the rising prominence of Asian lawmakers in the country. While Asians (that is, immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other subcontinent nations, and their descendants) have been in the U.K. in large numbers for fifty years, their participation in national politics has lagged far behind.
Asian women, in particular, have had very little to say with respect to public policy.
However, last May, six Asian women were elected to the British Parliament; and there are expectations that this number will increase in the coming years.
International Business Times spoke with two British scholars -- Judith M. Brown, Beit Professor of Commonwealth History, Balliol College, Oxford University and Victoria Honeyman, lecturer in British politics at Leeds University -- about this new phenomenon in Britain‘s body politic.
IBTIMES: In the May 2010 parliamentary elections, six Asian females were elected: Priti Patel, Shabana Mahmood, Lisa Nandy, Rushanara Ali, Valerie Vaz and Yasmin Qureshi. Five of them were Labour and Patel was the sole Conservative. Did these women win elections because their constituencies were heavily Asian? Or were there other factors involved?
BROWN: Yes, Patel is the only Conservative and the others were Labour. Looking at their constituencies it is clear that some ran because the constituency had a heavy number of Asian voters. For example, Rushanara Ali’s Bethnal Green and Bow [in east London] has a large number of Bangladeshis. Six other candidates in the election for that constituency were also South Asian.
Also in this category would be Shabana Mahmood. Her constituency, Birmingham-Ladywood, is a very multicultural area and there were two other South Asian candidates in the same constituency.
The same can be said for Valerie Vaz who represents Walsall South (a heavily Asian area).
As for Priti Patel, she won in Witham, which is a market town in Essex, a traditionally very safe Conservative seat. I guess the Tories wanted her to have a safe seat to boost the number Conservative of women and South Asian MPs.
HONEYMAN: It is possible that the Asian community helped these women to gain their seats, but this is not something we would suggest about a white candidate.
I have never heard it said that a white candidate has won because of the large white majority. We have to look deeper than that in order to explain the victory of any MP, including these ladies. Undoubtedly, their party preferences helped (so, for example Shabana Mahmood’s Birmingham Ladywood was a seat previously held by Labour firebrand Clare Short.)
Additionally, the candidates undoubtedly spoke to their own constituency and addressed issues which were important in Wigan [Nandy’s seat], Birmingham-Ladywood and Bethnal Green and Bow which attracted voters.
Really, the same reasons that any MP is elected.
IBTIMES: In 1987 Keith Vaz was the first Asian MP (of either gender) elected since Dadabhai Nairoji in 1892. There have been a number of Asian males in parliament since Vaz. Why has it taken so long for Asian females to run and get elected?
BROWN: The earliest male Asian MPs were migrants from elsewhere and there were very few Asian women in UK. It has taken time for home-grown and British-educated Asian women to want to stand for Parliament and to secure the education and connections necessary to undertake such a thing.
Remember that the permanent South Asian community only began to establish itself here in the 1950s.
HONEYMAN: Women and members of ethnic minorities both suffer from under-representation in British politics, and therefore women from ethnic minorities fall into both categories, being particularly under-represented.
It is difficult to know the reasons why this is, but it seems likely that it is a combination of factors - racialism, sexism, a lack of contacts for these individuals within the parties (ie. the old boys network) or the party parachuting preferred candidates into specific seats.
It could also be that there has been unwillingness on the part of the women to participate in politics in Parliament. It is not a very family-friendly environment (usually one of the reasons put forward as to why women are so under-represented) and it could be that there has been hostility from certain communities to these women standing. It is very difficult to know without asking these ladies directly, but I would guess a combination of factors.
IBTIMES: Looking ahead, do you expect to see more Asian females running for British politics?
HONEYMAN: Yes, although I doubt that the number of Asian women participating with rise with every single election, rather we may witness peaks and troughs. It is inevitable that as Britain becomes more tolerant towards women and ethnic minorities in politics, and as more women( and ethnic minority women particularly) join politics, it will become easier for other women to follow their lead.
IBTIMES: Generally speaking, do Asians in the UK still support Labour? Or are we seeing a gradual shift to the Tories? (I think David Cameron has urged his party to attract more Asians).
BROWN: Traditionally South Asians have supported the Labour Party, but this was a vote based on social class, rather than on ethnicity. Now that Indian-origin British people at least are moving higher up on the socio-economic ladder, they are gravitating towards the Tories in greater numbers.
However, this is not true of the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who are still much poorer.
HONEYMAN: David Cameron has tried very hard to encourage women and members of all ethnic minorities to join the Conservatives and become Parliamentary candidates (with some encouraging results).
However, it is still true that members of the Asian community still tend to support Labour. It could well be that the Conservatives are still viewed with suspicion based on their historic links to England, jingoism etc.
IBTIMES: Asians have now been in Britain in large numbers for at least fifty or sixty years. Is immigration still the most important political issue for them, or has that subject become less prominent the longer they have been in the country?
HONEYMAN: Immigration is an important issue for many [Asian] people, largely based on their own communities and the issues or successes they witness themselves.
It should be noted though that for many, the issue of immigration is viewed in a similar way to other groups within British society i.e. not as a direct issue (can my friend/relative/contact come to Britain) but rather by considering what further immigration would do to their community/area.
However, as with all voters, research seems to suggest that the issues which occupy voters are the economy, crime etc.
IBTIMES: Do Asians vote in large numbers in Britain, or is there a lot of apathy?
HONEYMAN: Apathy is a big issue in many Western democracies, and Britain is no different.
While members of the Asian community do seem to vote slightly less often (although more often than various other minority groups, such as Black men aged 18-24 of Afro-Caribbean descent), it is worth considering if this is apathy, or whether these individuals (like many other people) feel that the parties and their candidates have nothing to say to them.
I think it is more of a question of disengagement rather than laziness.
IBTIMES: Do Asian politicians have to be “British first, Asian second” to be considered viable, electable candidates?
BROWN: I think the parties match them to the respective constituency. But obviously they have to be supporters of the party and, by extension, of Britain and its democratic values
IBTIMES: I am surprised that none of the Asian females MPs were Sikhs, since Sikhs represent a disproportionately high percentage of Asians in UK. Why is this?
HONEYMAN: Sikhs generally seem to be largely under-represented in British politics (male and female), but I don't know why this is. It is possible that the same reasons which impact on the Asian females (which I mentioned above) have also impacted on Sikh individuals, or it could be that Sikhs are expressing their political views through other channels.
IBTIMES: Can you foresee an Asian ever becoming British Prime Minister? Or is that fantasy that’s never going to happen?
BROWN: I can’t see why not - eventually: look at President Obama in the U.S.
HONEYMAN: I don't think it would be in my lifetime, but never say never.