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
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.