How the Conservative Party in the UK is Attempting to Reach London's Sikh Community

The Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s campaign letter also came with a small A6-sized leaflet, on one side of which was a vicious attack at the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan. {{name}}
25 March, 2016

In mid March this year, many Sikh households in and around Southall in London, the United Kingdom, received a letter from the British prime minister, David Cameron. In it, he encouraged them to vote for the Conservative Party candidate, Zac Goldsmith, in the upcoming mayoral elections in May. The letter came as a surprise to many of the recipients. While it was common for politicians from Punjab to come and woo Punjabi Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in the UK during election times in India, it was perhaps the first time that the Conservative Party—colloquially the Tory party—had made such blatant overtures to win the votes of the Punjabi and Sikh community of London.

“The Sikh and Punjabi communities make an extraordinary contribution to London and to Britain, whether in business and enterprise, raising families, or building stronger, more united communities,” Cameron stated in his letter. “In government I have been determined to listen and act on your concerns.” Cameron also mentioned his visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which he characterized as a “deeply moving experience.” He told the voters that, as an MP, Goldsmith has consistently championed the Sikh community in his constituency, and that he would do the same as mayor of London. “I know he will be battering down my door to get the best possible deal for Londoners,” Cameron wrote.

Another letter, one by the candidate himself, accompanied the prime minister’s. Goldsmith’s campaign letter, as well, was targeted at Punjabis in general, but at Sikhs in particular. Amongst other things, he noted that he campaigned for the Golden Temple to remain in the hands of the Sikh community, and for documents detailing Operation Blue Star, the storming of Golden Temple in 1984—which suggested that a British secret service agent was recruited to help the Indian army plan the ambush—to be made public. “As an MP I campaigned against making the Golden Temple in Amritsar a UNESCO site in order to preserve control of this holy place in the hands of the Sikh community,” Goldsmith wrote. While mentioning that he campaigned against police budget cuts for the security of Londoners, Goldsmith made it a point to mention that both Sikh and Punjabi households are targeted for burglary as many families own gold and valuable family heirlooms. Goldsmith promised that, if elected, he would continue to host the Vaisakhi festival in City Hall, the office of the Mayor of London.

All other action plans, such as delivering affordable housing, better transport, cleaner air, safer streets— which are usually the main points of debate between mayoral candidates—received only a brief mention towards the end of the letter. Goldsmith’s campaign letter also came with a small A6-sized leaflet. On one side of this leaflet were three pictures of him, clicked during his recent visit to Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall, arguably the biggest gurdwara in the Europe. The other side was a scathing attack on the member of parliament Sadiq Khan, the Labour Party’s mayoral candidate, and Goldsmith’s rival in the race. The flyer was headlined “Sadiq Khan won’t stand up for London’s Sikh and Punjabi community.”

Traditionally, Sikhs in the UK, like most other minority and immigrant groups, have been supporters of the leftist Labour party. Labour’s Piara Singh Khabra, of the Ealing Southall constituency of London, was the first Sikh MP in the British parliament. However, over time, the professionally educated second and third generations of immigrants seem to be finding some common ground with the Tories. While the electoral numbers haven’t changed dramatically—Sikhs form about 0.6 percent of the population of London, and about 1.2 percent of the UK—the visibility of the Sikhs has increased, and they are now being seen as game changers in many constituencies within the UK. “The reason why the Tories are reaching out to the Sikh voters is the fact that Sikhs have made their presence felt in the political scene of the UK,” Sukhwinder Singh, a well-known community leader and the vice-president of Gurdwara Miri Piri Sahib, Southall, told me. “Initially they only made efforts in the religious sphere. Now that has been strengthened, and Sikhs have made themselves active politically as well.” In January 2015, ahead of the general elections in May, the Sikh Federation, a political organization that aims to integrate Sikh issues into mainstream politics in the UK, launched a 10-point manifesto raising these issues and listing constituencies where Sikh votes would make a difference. In the past few years, several politicians have also begun to make efforts to woo the community—Goldsmith and Cameron’s visits to Sikh shrines, for instance, were likely part of such endeavours.

The Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s campaign letter to SIkhs came with a small A6-sized leaflet. On one side of this leaflet were three pictures of him, clicked during his recent visit to a gurdwara in Southall, London, UK. {{name}}

“The Conservatives know that the Sikhs are a forward-looking community and have contributed immensely in various fields for the benefit of the country,” Gurcharan Singh, a former Labour party councilor who defected to the Tories a few years ago, told me. Gurcharan was also the Conservative MP candidate from Ealing Southall in 2010 and Slough in 2015. “It’s good for the Sikh community that they are being seen and counted as an electorate that can make a difference to the votes too. That’s why the government has worked with the Sikhs over issues of crash helmets at building sites and airport turban matter,” he added. He was referring to the issues of Sikhs not being exempt from wearing helmets at building sites until recently, and the treatment often meted out to them by airport security authorities for wearing turbans, both of which have been key concerns for the community in the UK. “Sikhs should support the party candidate,” Gurcharan concluded.

But many feel differently. “It’s [a] most divisive approach; against spirit of democracy in Britain,” Virendra Sharma, the current MP from Ealing Southall, told me when I spoke to him over the phone a few days ago. “Politicians, here, have until now refrained from using race and religion as a basis for politics. The Conservative Party, for their petty political gains is using one community against the other as a football,” Sharma said. “This is not to project an anti-Labour stand, it’s more to project anti-Sadiq Khan stand, in a way to play Sikhs against Muslims card.”

Goldsmith’s campaign was also criticised for the homogenous way in which the flyers seemed to perceive minority communities. Similarly tailored flyers were also sent to other British Indian communities, such as Tamils. The flyer for the British Tamil community noted that as a government minister, Khan did not bring up the issue of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The ‘Indian’ flyer—targeted at all British Indians, and different from the Tamil and Sikh ones—stated that he didn’t attend “UK Welcomes Modi,” an event held to celebrate Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK in 2015. (Khan did, however, meet Modi at a separate occasion.) Neither flyer failed to mention that Khan would impose a “wealth tax on family jewellery.” “For some bizarre reason,” the website Daily Sikh Updates noted, Goldsmith “assumed all the 120,000 Sikhs were middle-class Hindus, running family businesses, concerned about burglaries and possessions whilst welcoming Modi’s UK visit last year.” “Zac Goldsmith weirdly thinks everyone named Singh is sitting on a stash of gold,” Anita Singh, an editor at the British newspaper Daily Telegraph, wrote in a tweet.

Sukhwinder Singh, however, did not find the Conservative campaign unusual. “It is within the rights of the political parties to approach the people of different identities with a considerable vote bank,” he said. “It is done all around the democratic world and the Conservatives are doing no different.”

Meanwhile, Khan’s campaign office did not respond to queries seeking his reaction to these letters.

While the 5 May election for the Mayor of London has been making national headlines in the UK, Goldsmith’s letter has, at the very least, made sure that the election talk also reaches the dining table conversation of the Sikh families.