LONDON: Labour’s policy on Indian occupied Kashmir has emerged as a thorny issue for the party and its leader Keir Starmer in the tough Batley and Spen by-election.
In May 2020, the Labour leader may not have realised that the issue of Kashmir will come to haunt him when he took a U-turn on the Labour party’s historic position.
“Any constitutional issues in India are a matter for the Indian Parliament, and Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully. Labour is an internationalist party and stands for the defence of human rights everywhere,” Starmer had said.
In the last general election, Labour had securely won the seat but now the party is worried after being challenged by the Conservatives and former MP George Galloway.
Gallloway has positioned his campaign around the issues of Kashmir and Palestine, and Labour campaigners involved in the election have said that voters have accused them of abandoning Kashmir and Kashmiris to please Indian PM Narendra Modi’s government.
If Labour loses the seat then Starmer may lose moral authority to lead the party as he lost another by-election a month ago, and almost everyone agrees that Muslim voters will play a decisive role.
Local Muslim voters have made it clear that the Labour party took them for granted and stopped caring for their concerns and for them, the time now is to send a message so that the party changes its direction.
Last week, Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater was chased and heckled by a British Kashmiri campaigner, Afsar, who told her that Labour had let them down.
Afsar’s behaviour was condemned by the Labour leader and campaigners but local voters have told media they are upset that under Starmer, the party has let them down.
Former MP George Galloway has entered the race and is set to inflict a heavy loss to the Labour party. Pundits believe that the votes that he could potentially take away from Labour will decide the winner and the loser.
According to the 2018 Office of National Statistics (ONS) data, Batley and Spen is one of the top 20 seats where Muslim community voters have a serious impact.
It is believed that around 9,000 voters in this constituency are Muslims. Labour has a thin majority of 3,525 and if the Muslim voters turn their backs on Labour, then it could mean a serious problem for Starmer.
Nearly 80% of the Muslim voters are from Indian Gujarat and the remaining are Pakistani Kashmiris who are vocal and active in politics.
George Galloway was invited to stand in the local election by two Pakistani activists — Yasir Qureshi and Adnan Ayub Awan. However, his election campaign has largely been funded by Gujarati Muslim businessmen.
The businessmen have appreciated Galloway’s stance on the issue of Palestine and his ability to style himself as the true representative of the working class.
On the other hand, campaigners blame Galloway for inviting division and toxic culture.
It is not just the issues of Kashmir and Palestine that have alienated Muslims from the Labour party, but also the overall lack of direction of the party and the alternative it once offered.
To the local voters, its upsetting that Starmer went to a local area but did not meet the community, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the constituency and campaigned with Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson.
Labour’s traditional voters are upset that the party has not taken the issue of Islamophobia and racism seriously and for going out of its way under Starmer to woo Narendra Modi’s supporters in Britain.
At least a dozen local voters told Geo News that they voted for Labour all their lives but will be taking their votes elsewhere to register a protest and send a message to the party that they cannot be taken for granted.
The Labour party has responded to the challenge, by issuing a leaflet calling for a two-state solution in Palestine, self-determination for the people of Indian occupied Kashmir, a promise to tackle Islamophobia and racism, and leading British Pakistani and Asian politicians including Naz Shah, Afzal Khan and Tan Dhesi have campaigned locally.
The election is expected to be held on July 1.