Pathway to Parliament for British Asians


ABC Think Tank meeting was held at Committee Room 13, House of Commons, London on 4th March 2009. The meeting was well attended and over subscribed. It was encouraging to see how most of the academics made time and effort to attend.


We had people from a wide variety of backgrounds including journalists, foreign office delegates, doctors, politicians, artists and executives. Thirty six contributors registered. All of us found the discussion very stimulating and different aspects of British Asians in political world were highlighted. Two Members of Parliament, Mohammad Sarwar and Keith Vaz, joined Mr Daud, Head of Chancery from High Commission of Bangladesh as the panel. The session on questions and answers went well.


  Mr Mohammad Sarwar  (Member Parliament) :

·    Mr. Mohammed Sarwar spoke about his journey with politics so far. He grew up in Pakistan and was involved in student politics. While in Pakistan he joined the PPP. He joined the labour party in 1982, and it took him two years to gain this membership, being denied it on the grounds that he was a businessman not a trade unionist.

·    Mr. Sarwar was attracted to politics by the desire to make better the quality of life of people after visiting Israel, the west bank and Gaza as well as understanding the Kashmir conflict. Feeling injustice was being done, and having the temperament of a social worker all his life, he was drawn to a life in politics.

·    He was first elected as the MP for Glasgow Govan in the 1997 general election. He was re-elected in Glasgow Govan in the 2001 general election. The 2005 general election saw boundary changes in Scotland, so he fought and won the new constituency of Glasgow Central. The road to becoming an MP was extremely difficult, with Mr. Sarwar fighting for justice at various points, including the famous ballot paper scandal which gained significant media coverage, where the accusation that signatures on ballot papers did not match up was made.

·    Mr. Sarwar recalls facing many questions, in his career on a whole host of issues, some more memorable questions, which he was asked as soon as he was elected as the first Muslim MP were regarding the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and whether his loyalties lay with Ayatollah Khomeini?

·    Mr. Sarwar has increased his majority each time he has stood up for parliament, and he puts this down to hard work. Challenges he has faced in his career were when he had to save the shipyard industry in his constituency when senior MPs advised him to not engage in battles he could not win. The brutal murder of a 15yrs old boy by five Asian men, three of whom fled to Pakistan where there is no extradition treaty meant that Mr. Sarwar faced a long battle to bring these men to justice.

·    Mr. Sarwar accepts stereotyping and racism exist, but believes that hard work pays off by bringing in the votes. He feels the future lies in the hands of young people being involved in the political process. Mr. Sarwar makes his decisions on a moral not religious level and on one occasion he was told that he should be ashamed of himself as participating in British politics is haraam.


Mr Keith Vaz  (Member Parliament):

·    Mr. Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester spoke about the pathway to parliament not being as difficult today as it was for Mr. Sarwar. He feels that the biggest challenge that an ethnic minority MP faces is the challenge to be more mainstream. To be thought of as representing the plight of everyone not just a select few in a minority group.

·    His own journey into politics started in Richmond, where he went to the party conference as their representative. He stood for parliament for the first time aged just 25yrs, from Leicester East constituency. He feels that the numbers are not good! There are only 15/653 ethnic minority MPs and in fact the correct and proportionate number should be around 54.

·    The party is taking measures to improve the situation, and there are things that can be done to correct the imbalance in Mr. Vaz’s opinion. For example, an all Asian or Black shortlist, and organizations like the Asian British Connection (ABC) Think tank to put forward evidence and radical ideas at the All Speakers Conference on this issue.

·    He feels that people assume automatic selection, but in fact, it is vital to fight an unwinnable seat or stand for local election and work hard to get a seat. He believes that British Asians are an asset to British politics as they bring to the table more than others perhaps would, because of their culturally diverse background.


   Mr Daud (Head of Chancery Bangladesh):

·    Mr Daud from Bangladesh High Commission reitereated that there are 7 million Bangladeshis living outside Bangladesh, of which there are 500,000 in the UK. There are many issues which face the community including unemployment and education, although the community contributes especially to the restaurant industry in the UK. There is a fair representation of the Bangladeshi community in the local councils, not just in east London but elsewhere as well, but representation at a national level is not visible.


   General points raised by the floor:

·     Being a British Asian and contesting for a seat in the national elections means that one should apply a discount factor of around 2000 votes, simply be virtue of being British Asian in origin. It was claimed that there have been cases where despite working in a committed way for political parties, safe seats have not been given to deserving British Asian candidates. It was further claimed by Ali Miraj, an attendee that senior figures within political parties have said that his non-selection is by virtue of not being white and middle class. Ali Miraj felt that there is a sense of discrimination  and that the political parties, most notably one major party may foster a ‘colonial mentality’. (This is the view of an individual and not of the Think tank, but is noted herewith). And that if there really was the desire to place British Asians within parliament, then putting deserving candidates into proper safe seats will achieve this objective. The house felt that so far this has not been done to any acceptable extent.

·    Cross cultural understanding is of pivotal importance in this day and age and promoting a diverse set of MPs for a diverse set of experiences is vital.

·    Extreme voices are give a lot of time in the media eye, perhaps overshadowing the voices of those moderates, who have a positive contribution to society. We need to do more at a society level, to let more MPs of British Asian background into parliament. Most notably using media as a positive tool to inform people of how British Asian MPs would in fact contribute and bring a lot to the table.

·    As British Asians we must overcome the fear or notion that everyone dislikes us. We must be confident within ourselves and believe that we are British to overcome any prejudices fully. Educating our children and giving them a positive outlook about their position in society is vital.

·    We should not let racism hinder our progress in any way. After all it exists in every country, even parent countries of origin. Determination is required, the danger lies in limiting and confining ourselves because our own pre-conceived notions and ideas about being discriminated against.

·    The idea that we should perhaps explore our own ideas, and think of what we represent as an individual is important. Coming from two cultures, which do not necessarily always align closely in values and belief systems means we must first come to accept ourselves and accept how our parent cultures influence our current standing in society is critical before we can move forward in politics in a mature way.

·    There is a need for British Asians to not talk just about ‘community cohesion and race relations’ but to truly demonstrate their ideas and skills on a range of different issues, e.g. mortgage issues, the economy etc.

·    Politics is intrinsically tribal, alliances help you progress. We need to hold on to our parent cultures but also move forward.

·    The British Asian youth of today in the UK do not necessarily have a good relations with parent countries, infact some may foster a sense of resentment towards their parent countries. Perhaps this is due to the conflict which coping with two cultures brings.

·    There is a need for an organisation that can guide British Asian youth, educate them and allow them to have a platform to achieve their political aspirations. The Asian British Connection (ABC) Think tank will serve that purpose by working closely with the youth. The Youth wing already has good representation in membership as well as the Executive Committee.

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