Asian com­mu­nity must not be seen as a bloc vote by Asian politi­cians

The bat­tle for the lead­er­ship of Scot­tish Labour has de­scended into an om­nisham­bles. Here, Jonathon Shafi, a Scot­tish writer of Pak­istani her­itage, looks at the role the is­sue of race has played in the con­test

Sunday Herald - - COMMENT - Scot­tish Labour lead­er­ship con­tender Anas Sar­war Pho­to­graph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

SCOT­TISH Labour party sources were brief­ing on the run-up to the dead­line for new mem­bers to join and vote in the lead­er­ship bat­tle that over 1,000 Asian mem­bers had joined the party. In­deed, one party source claimed that a re­cruit­ment cam­paign among the Asian com­mu­nity emerged to “edge it for Anas” – mean­ing Anas Sar­war, the can­di­date from the right of the party – and that of the 1,600 new mem­bers, 1,200 had “Asian-sound­ing names”.

Re­ports of this surge in re­cruit­ment have been com­bined with calls for a strict vet­ting process. There have been ex­am­ples of multi-res­i­dent house­holds sign­ing up us­ing only one email ad­dress or a sin­gle phone num­ber. This has raised con­cerns, es­pe­cially when new mem­bers are not re­quired to pro­vide a sig­na­ture. The branch sec­re­tary of the Labour Glas­gow South­side branch – cov­er­ing an area where much of the new Asian in­take comes from – quit his post in protest at re­cruit­ment ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties fol­low­ing last week’s rev­e­la­tions by the Sun­day Her­ald.

The Asian com­mu­nity is well in­te­grated into our cul­tural and so­cial life. But when it comes to pol­i­tics and the me­dia, Asians have lim­ited rep­re­sen­ta­tion. This con­text makes dis­cussing the Sar­war re­cruit­ment drive and in­flux of Asian mem­bers par­tic­u­larly com­plex. It is en­tirely le­git­i­mate that many Asian peo­ple would em­brace the pos­si­bil­ity of Scot­land’s first-ever Asian First Min­is­ter. It is also prob­lem­atic to as­sume those who com­prise the 1,200 peo­ple with “Asian-sound­ing names” are nec­es­sar­ily back­ing Sar­war, who says: “There were no com­plaints when peo­ple joined to vote for Jeremy – but some in the party have ques­tioned the num­ber of peo­ple with Asian-sound­ing names join­ing up. We are proud to be a di­verse party and ac­tion must be taken against any­one in­volved in this smear against new mem­bers.”

Sar­war rep­re­sents a prom­i­nent fam­ily, has busi­ness in­ter­ests and eco­nomic power that can be de­ployed to raise sup­port for po­lit­i­cal en­deav­ours. Money and priv­i­lege talk when it comes to po­lit­i­cal suc­cess. It is pos­si­ble to mo­bilise such re­sources to win elec­tion con­tests, un­like Mo­men­tum which in­vests heav­ily in grass-roots mo­bil­i­sa­tion. But such cur­rency doesn’t speak a lan­guage – it is a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the po­lit­i­cal scene re­gard­less of race.

The prob­lem comes when the Asian com­mu­nity is viewed by so­ci­ety – or in­deed by pow­er­ful and aspir­ing Asian politi­cians – as a block. Mes­sages are cir­cu­lat­ing the Asian com­mu­nity urg­ing them to sign up to vote for Sar­war. But there are many po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tions and if Asians are go­ing to se­ri­ously break through into Scot­tish po­lit­i­cal life, this must be drawn out, rather than be­ing fun­nelled into a se­lect few politi­cians who the rest of the com­mu­nity are in some way ex­pected to sup­port.

Sar­war’s cam­paign has been marred by a se­ries of scan­dals that for have for many peo­ple fa­tally un­der­mined his abil­ity to pro­claim that he stands for “Labour val­ues”. His busi­ness was found to be pay­ing work­ers less than the real liv­ing wage. This al­lowed Ni­cola Stur­geon to at­tack the party as a whole: “The prob­lem here, as Anas Sar­war so clearly il­lus­trates, is there is a mas­sive gulf be­tween what Labour says and what Labour does.” It was also re­vealed that the firm had no for­mal trade union recog­ni­tion.

This raises ques­tions. In an era of dis­con­tent at a rigged sys­tem, why would work­ing-class Asians not pre­fer to sup­port Richard Leonard (the left-wing con­tender in the lead­er­ship race) who can de­liver a far more au­then­tic chal­lenge? Given the pop­u­lar­ity of Jeremy Cor­byn – who re­cently at­tracted 1,500 peo­ple to Glas­gow Cen­tral Mosque – why not sup­port a clear ally of the Cor­byn project over some­one who months be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion wanted him sacked? Are peo­ple con­strained be­cause, un­der­stand­ably, they also want to see more Asian po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the top of Scot­tish pol­i­tics?

As a mixed-race Scot­tish Pak­istani who has been in­volved in Scot­tish pol­i­tics at grass-roots level and in na­tional cam­paigns for over a decade, I re­ject the idea that the field of vi­sion for tak­ing po­lit­i­cal ac­tion should nar­row it­self on a se­lect few Asian politi­cians. In­stead we need a revival in the Asian com­mu­nity that re­flects the best tra­di­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment and the au­then­tic left. We need an in­jec­tion of pol­i­tics from the bot­tom up and a re­minder that Asians have played a key role in left­wing move­ments.

The key to mak­ing the break­through into Scot­tish pol­i­tics will not come from one or two in­di­vid­u­als oc­cu­py­ing elite po­si­tions in gov­ern­ment, re­gard­less of party. It will come from the vi­brancy that ex­tra-par­lia­men­tary move­ments which chal­lenge in­equal­ity and in­jus­tice gen­er­ates, and as part of the broad de­bate about where we as a so­ci­ety are go­ing, do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. In that dis­course we need more Asian voices speak­ing up, es­pe­cially as racism and is­lam­o­pho­bia is on the rise in Europe. But let them be di­verse, work­ing-class, rad­i­cal and ir­rev­er­ent. That would add so much to the rich­ness of our po­lit­i­cal life – and it would take every­one for­ward.

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