Tamil Solidarity members attended a meeting organised by Tamils for Labour on 11 April at Portcullis
House by the Parliament.
It was a meeting aimed to inform Labour Party MPs of the current situation in Sri Lanka and to put pressure on them to discuss the attacks on human rights and on people living in Sri Lanka. The meeting also tried to highlight the failure of the new President, Sirisena Maithripala, in providing justice to the victims of the war and land-grab, and to take decisive steps to solve the ethnic conflict.
The first part of the meeting was a panel discussion by journalists and writers, Callum Macrea and Frances Harrison, Sonya Sceats from Freedom from Torture, and Dr Sutha Nadarajah. This was followed by Labour MPs’ contributions and concluded with a short session of questions from the floor.
The main attraction for the meeting was the chief guest, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. He was the reason for the huge interest beforehand and for the attendance of 400 plus, mainly young people. Among the Labour Party MPs who spoke, Chukka Umunna stood out as someone completely out of touch with what the meeting was about. The Streatham MP and former business secretary was quick to comment on black, Asian and minority ethnic support for the Labour Party. He admitted – to the audience of hundreds of Asians – that this support has declined over recent decades. However, he failed to explain the reasons why. He said that he and Keith Vaz MP have launched an ‘investigation’ into this.
In the 2015 election, Labour registered a historic decline in votes from black and Asian communities. In 2010 around 68% of ethnic minorities had voted Labour, while only 16% had voted Conservative. In 2015, however, the Labour share decreased by 52%. In one-in-three constituencies, the ethnic minority population exceeds the majority that the sitting MP has. This means that, in some cases, ethnic minority votes are crucial for MPs to get elected.
During the Labour leadership election contest last year, Chuka Umunna criticised Jeremy Corbyn, saying that he would accelerate Labour’s declining support if he was to win. Umunna backed Liz Kendall, the most right-wing of the four leadership candidates. She came last, with only 4.5% – a poor result, especially compared to the huge support (59%) Jeremy received. Umunna was also one of the MPs who resigned from the shadow cabinet after Corbyn’s victory.
Moreover, the accusation that Jeremy Corbyn is causing the decline in support among black and Asian couldn’t be further from the truth. Traditionally, most black and Asian people supported the Labour Party. This is because of the history of the party. It played a key role from the 1950s in building up welfare services, investing in education, housing and healthcare, etc. However, the character of the Labour Party began to change, especially with the emergence of New Labour under Tony Blair. His ‘new’ Labour government joined the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. It brought in student tuition fees and introduced privatisation into the NHS. New Labour accepted that cut-backs and austerity were inevitable following the 2007/08 financial crisis – making ordinary people pay for the economic collapse caused by mega-rich bankers and hedge funds.
There then followed five years of Conservative and Lib Dem coalition government which continued the cuts and attacks. Despite this, the Conservative Party won the general election in 2015. This was mainly due to the failure of the Labour Party to provide an alternative. The turnout was low and the Tories were elected by only 24.4% of the electoral.
Today, the six years of hard-hitting austerity cut-backs on vital services have seen black and Asian communities among those who are affected the most. This is not surprising as these communities are generally among the poorest groups in society. It also means that the general discontent and anger at the political establishment has been reflected in black, Asian and minority ethnic people.
After all, Tory, Lib Dem and Labour – in government nationally or in councils locally – have implemented cut-backs to essential services and attacked living and working conditions. However, the Labour Party leadership contest got a surge of interest when Jeremy Corbyn got on the ballot paper to stand – including from black and Asian young people and workers. They were enthused by his willingness to stand up and articulate the demands that are of immediate concern: such as defending the NHS, free education, fighting low pay and so on. Corbyn was also against imperialist war and supported asylum rights. It was a relief to hear a politician speaking against the anti-immigrant propaganda – and blaming austerity not refugees and migrants – for the lack of services available.
More than 100,000 have joined the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign and victory. His meetings were diverse, with more black and Asians taking part in politics as a result of his policies. Many of the youth, including Tamils, are Corbyn supporters. Corbyn has a record of standing up for human rights. The Tamil community recognises that he is one of the few MPs to march alongside the 100,000 Tamils in the final phase of the 2009 massacre. He supports the right to self-determination of the Tamils.
Chuka Umunna has also got a record. He voted in favour of the Iraq war and supported the Syria airstrikes. He has proudly mentioned that Tony Blair was one of the reasons he is in the Labour Party. Umunna’s policies and interests lie with the establishment. He defends the system that is attacking the jobs, homes and vital services of ordinary people.
Although Umunna and Corbyn are in the same political party, their policies are very different. It is the policies that Corbyn put forward in his leadership campaign that are attracting black and Asian people. The standing ovation he received in the meeting on 11 April confirms the huge support for him among the Tamil youth.
Tamil Solidarity and many Tamils support those policies: to defend the NHS and education, to stop the cut-backs, and to end military interventions. We would support the introduction of a system of democratic reselection of Labour Party MPs and public representatives, so that it can become the party that genuinely stands up for working-class people that it was set up to be.