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Are British Political Parties and Politicians failing to properly represent Sikhs?

March 13, 2016 | By

London: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recently caused considerable social media interest while addressing students at a university in the US when he joked: “I have more Sikh Ministers than Modi”.  The 44-year old surprised everyone after taking up office last November by including four Sikhs in his Cabinet, including the high profile appointment of Harjit Singh Sajjan as Defence Minister who is also an Amritdhari (initiated Sikh).

Given the comment by Trudeau the comparison has rightly focused on the Modi Cabinet with only one Minister of Sikh origin, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, in the irrelevant post of Minister for Food Processing.  However, it also raises the broader question of political representation of Sikhs in the UK linked to the Sikh Manifesto published last year.

In Canada Sikhs comprise around 2% of the population a similar proportion to India, but due to the concentration of the Canadian Sikh population more than 5% or 17 of the 338 MPs elected last November were of Sikh origin – the highest number of Sikhs ever elected in Canada. 

S. Amrik Singh GIll, Chairman of Sikh Federation UK

S. Amrik Singh GIll, Chairman of Sikh Federation UK

In the UK Sikhs comprise around 1% of the population and whilst Sikhs are not as concentrated as in Canada it was an indictment of the British political system that it could not deliver a single Sikh MP last May.  We currently have 650 MPs in total in the UK, but this is set to reduce by 50 for 2020 following boundary changes.  This will make it even harder for Sikhs to be elected as there appears to be limited appetite for changing behaviour and practices within political parties that can take a considerable time to achieve.  We are not yet seeing sufficient progress to encourage more Sikh men and women, especially visible Sikhs to enter politics at the highest level.  Apart from Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who has made a public commitment and is in the process of making changes.    

The Prime Minister recently announced there are likely to be 40-50 new appointments to the House of Lords in July.  Whilst the Conservatives have Sikh representation in the House of Lords the Labour Party who Sikhs have traditionally voted for in larger numbers unsatisfactorily has no Sikhs in either House.  The Labour leader although reluctant to enter the debate on more Labour Lords as he wants reform would be advised to use the opportunity to work with the Prime Minister and ensure a number of Sikhs are appointed to the House of Lords.  Those appointed should be role models and send a very positive signal to members of the Sikh community across the UK.  For this to be achieved they should be visible Sikhs, well known within the Sikh community and possess the skills, professional background and attributes to be able to make a positive contribution in the House of Lords.

Political parties and activists rather than shoulder the majority of the blame are quick to blame Sikhs themselves for not being politically active in an attempt to hide their own failings that have existed for over three decades.  If political parties are serious that Parliament represents the people it serves the first question they must answer, but are unable to do so, is how many Sikh members do they have in their respective political parties.  Although many politicians across the political spectrum agree public bodies should monitor Sikhs as a separate ethnic group the parties need to set an example by changing their own internal monitoring systems for membership.

The Sikh Network is conducting a large survey of 10,000 Sikhs in the next couple of months that will give the community regional and national data on the extent to which Sikhs are members of different political parties.  If this shows Sikhs are members of political parties in larger or similar proportions to others, but not progressing to become elected representatives at the local or national level the parties will need to ask themselves serious questions around discrimination and look to remove barriers that clearly appear to exist.

Whereas Canada has a high number of Sikh MPs, Jagmeet Singh, the Deputy Leader of the provincial New Democratic Party in Ontario, in a recent visit to the UK commented when asked a question at a Sikh Network event in London that they may have many Sikh MPs and Ministers, but they are a waste of time if they do not take up Sikh issues alongside other matters.  He continued Sikhs in the UK, currently without any MPs of their own, have over the years and to their credit secured greater legal rights than any other Sikh community throughout the Diaspora concerning issues like the separate recognition and protection of the Sikh identity.

This is because Sikhs in the UK are better organised and politically active in campaigning and lobbying on Sikh issues. Sikhs across the UK are able to engage with large numbers of MPs who represent them to raise issues of importance.  This was recently best demonstrated by the political campaign to secure the release and return of Parmajeet Singh Pamma from Portugal when the Sikh Federation (UK) assisted by the Sikh Network coordinated a political campaign to reach over 250 MPs.

The question Sikhs need to ask up and down the country is have politicians who were elected last May done enough on the issues they supported in the Sikh Manifesto and other matters that have been raised since they were elected.  Two specific and achievable priorities were set by the Sikh Network for the first twelve months.

  1. Getting the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to agree to a separate ‘Sikh’ ethnic tick box in the 2021 Census.  The Sikh Federation (UK) and Sikh Network have been active in contributing to the public consultation by ONS and meeting them at senior levels before and after the consultation exercise. In the next 4-6 weeks Sikh constituents will be asked to remind MPs to write to the ONS to recognise the demand for a separate Sikh ethnic tick box and ensure the 2007 test questionnaire includes the change demanded by the Sikh community and its elected representatives.

  2. Securing a suitable site in central London for a permanent monument to highlight Sikh sacrifices in the First World War under the slogan ‘Sikhs: Lions of the Great War’.  This was a subject that politicians on all sides accepted before the General Election was an excellent idea as the Sikh community were only requesting a site in central London with the community setting up a Sikh Memorial Trust to pay for the monument through public subscriptions.  To date the responses from Minsters at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Ministry of Defence have been surprisingly unenthusiastic, although the two main candidates for the Mayor for London have been far more positive and things may change after 5 May.

On 17 May the Sikh Federation (UK) supported by the Sikh Network are planning to hold an event in the Attlee suite in Portcullis House between 1-3pm to mark achievements in the first 12 months after the General Election.  This will provide an opportunity to judge progress and hold politicians to account on how they have been representing Sikhs since being elected last May.

by: Bhai Amrik Singh, Chairman of the Sikh Federation UK.

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