British foreign policy and the ethnic vote

British foreign policy and the ethnic vote
Former Cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi says the current foreign policy choices appeal only to Britain’s white voters and thus ignore “electoral reality”.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been warned that he will fail to secure a majority at next year's general election if he does not change some of his key foreign policy objectives to woo ethnic minority voters.

The warning came from former Cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi, who resigned last week over what she branded as the government's "morally indefensible" policies of shielding Israel from criticism for its actions in Gaza, and of failing to recognise Palestine as a "sovereign state".

The 43-year-old, who was born in Britain to Pakistani immigrants and rose to the highest position held by a member of her community in Mr Cameron's ruling Conservatives, said the current foreign policy choices appeal only to Britain's white voters and thus ignore "electoral reality".

The comments were swiftly dismissed by her former colleagues. They claimed that, as an appointed member of the House of Lords, Britain's upper parliamentary chamber, Baroness Warsi - as she is formally called - knows next to nothing about winning ballots.

Nevertheless, Baroness Warsi's comments have rekindled a long-running debate with both the Conservative and opposition Labour party about just how much of Britain's foreign policy should reflect the country's changed ethnic composition.

Islam is now Britain's second-largest religion, although the number of Muslims is just under 5 per cent of the population, or about 2.7 million souls. The figure almost doubled in the past decade. Most believers are from the Indian sub-continent, and are increasingly concentrated in constituencies where they can make a big difference.

In Baroness Warsi's birthplace, the northern English town of Dewsbury, Muslims account for 18.5 per cent on the electoral register.

Political experts agree that in about 100 out of 650 British constituencies, the overall number of ethnic minorities - which includes more than just Muslims - is greater than the winning margin of sitting MPs now. In theory, minorities can hold the key to who governs Britain. Offering various ethnic groups foreign policy concessions to attract electoral support thus makes perfect sense.

When it was last in power, Labour often argued that India and Pakistan should resolve their Kashmir dispute through mediation, a position which infuriated India but played well with Kashmiri and Pakistani Muslims in Britain. Labour also introduced a ban on official contacts with Mr Narendra Modi, who served as chief minister in the Indian state of Gujarat before becoming India's Prime Minister.

The Conservatives, in turn, lifted the ban on Mr Modi, to the delight of Britain's Gujarati community and a lot of other middle-class Indians who have deserted Labour. The Conservatives also cemented their hold on a large chunk of the Jewish vote by being very friendly to Israel.

Still, both major British parties are discovering that accommodating ethnic lobbies is easier said than done. Minorities tend to galvanise around single issues; depending on who is doing the talking, the demands may include the boycotting of Israel or the isolation of India.

Such demands are not only mutually exclusive and often counterproductive, they also cannot be implemented in isolation of Britain's broader foreign policy considerations. To use just one example, a swift recognition of Palestine's sovereignty and the imposition of an arms embargo on Israel are now the minimum demands advanced by Baroness Warsi and most of Britain's Muslim communities. But introducing such measures without coordination with the US or the European Union could plunge Britain into significant foreign policy difficulties.

The result is that many of the foreign policy initiatives implemented by British governments in order to "reach out" to ethnic minorities remain more symbolic than practical.

Besides, the current British government has different electoral priorities. For Mr Cameron, the biggest task at next year's elections is to defeat a challenge from the nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP). Potential UKIP voters are concerned about increases in immigration, not about inclusive policies for minorities.

Still, the issue of Gaza has united Britain's Muslims in ways that few other foreign policy matters ever did. Although Mr Cameron's government is countering criticism from its Muslim electorate by touting Britain's financial help to Palestinian humanitarian causes, all opinion polls indicate a majority of the country's Muslims feel that London's diplomats persistently ignore their values and aspirations.

So, even if the Baroness Warsi resignation episode will "quickly fizzle out", as Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke dismissively put it, the arduous task of persuading Britain's Muslims that the Foreign Office also works for them has barely started.

This article was first published on August 12, 2014.
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