Conservatives look to bring British Sikhs into the fold

March 4, 2015

Prime Ministers haven’t historically focused their attention on British Sikhs, but David Cameron has pulled out all the stops.


He has hosted receptions at Downing Street to mark the Vaisakhi festival, been pictured flipping chapattis in gurdwaras and in 2013 became the first serving Prime Minister to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine.


Conservative ministers have even floated the idea of creating a dedicated Sikh regiment in the British Army.


Are these merely cynical ploys aimed at winning votes, or are they indicative of an evolution of both Britain’s Sikhs and the Conservative Party?




Since the 1950s, when mass Sikh immigration to the UK began, the community has overwhelmingly voted Labour.


The Sikh dominated London constituency of Ealing Southall has only ever returned a Labour candidate.


Paul Uppal, the only Sikh member of parliament and a Conservative, acknowledges that class historically played a major part in this leaning.


‘We come from traditional working class backgrounds, and perhaps Sikhs thought that with the cultural environment they were in, Labour were more receptive than we were.’


Uppal, who himself comes from a Labour family, admits that Enoch Powell’s now infamous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 didn’t exactly warm first generation attitudes towards the Tories.


Ironically, and tellingly, Uppal now sits in Powell’s seat of Wolverhapmton South West.




Uppal says that under Cameron, the ‘door is now open’ to Sikhs and ethnic minority groups.


According to the British Sikh Report, one in three British Sikh families owns a business, with the total Sikh contribution to the British economy standing at £7.63 billion.


It should perhaps be no surprise then that the Conservatives, who place such emphasis on home ownership and entrepreneurship, and a socially mobile Sikh community are becoming closer.


Dabinderjit Singh, principal adviser to lobby group Sikh Federation UK, says: ‘Sikhs business owners probably are more aligned with the Tories and if I was marking Cameron and his party, I would give them 7 out of 10 on Sikh issues.’




Dr Jasjit Singh, a research fellow at the University of Leeds specialising in British Sikhs, said: ‘There hasn’t been the same amount of attention directed at British Sikhs by previous prime ministers, Labour or Tory.


'It’s certainly welcome, but being completely cynical, it’s likely about the growing importance of the ethnic vote.’


Although there are only 432,429 Sikhs in the UK, the Sikh Federation estimates that there are 50 seats where the Sikh vote could help swing May’s general election result.


In addition, recent polling by the British Election Study showed that Labour’s share of the ethnic minority vote is falling while the Conservatives’ is rising.




According to Uppal, though, it is not about votes or home ownership or wealth for the Prime Minister, but something more personal.


‘One of his first trips as a new candidate in 1997 was going into a gurdwara in Stafford. When he became an MP, he joined the All Parliamentary Group for Sikhs. People are always going to be cynical, but there is some history here.’


Uppal also cites Cameron’s Big Society mantra as going hand in glove with the Sikh ethos of positive civic engagement and helping those in need, especially through the concept of langar, or free community kitchen.


However, Jasjit Singh says: ‘Yes, we had the Big Society, but where has it gone? Sikhism emphasises working hard in conjunction with contributing to your community and helping others. While I support the Conservative emphasis on rewarding hard work, we haven’t really seen the Tories supporting local community services over the past five years.’




Despite Cameron’s increased engagement, it hasn’t been plain sailing.


He has had to deal with revelations that the Thatcher government sent an SAS officer to India in 1984 to advise New Delhi on its military assault on the Golden Temple.


Some Sikhs have also vigorously petitioned his government to intervene on the community’s behalf on the issue of human rights violations in India.


Dabinderjit Singh says: ‘Before the Tories came to power we had good links with them, but when in government, issues like human rights and 1984 seem to have been forgotten about.’


The latest news to come out of Conservative HQ, that ministers are mooting the idea of creating a dedicated Sikh regiment in the British Army, has gone down well with Sikh organisations.


Perhaps it is apt that in the Sikh tradition, warriors wear the colour blue.


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