General Election 2024: the Sikh vote

Sikh Nagar Kirtan, Preston. Image credit: William Matthews flickr CCLicense 2.0

By Hardeep Singh

Religion Counts, the recent research by the think tank Theos analysing voting intentions by religious affiliation between 2014 and 2023, shows the Anglican vote has consistently been leaning to the right, Catholics tend to be floating voters and Muslims broadly support Labour, although the data doesn’t factor in trends since 7 October and the Israel Gaza war.

There is no suggestion that any one faith group is a single monolith in its worldview or politics, and there exists a diversity of opinion and political persuasion among people of all faiths and none. You are as likely to find an Anglican Conservative, as you are a Sikh, Hindu, or Buddhist. However, the launch of the campaign group The Muslim Vote which suggests it can mobilise four million of the faithful and is largely based on pro-Palestine politics has piqued curiosity as to whether other faith groups have a similar coalition of organisations working to galvanise community votes for the election on 4 July.

There is a dearth of data available for smaller faith groups such as Sikhs, so the question then arises: does the Sikh vote exist?

Historical context, voting intentions and Sikhs in politics

The British Sikh Report (2023) asked respondents what their voting intentions would be if there were an election now. The survey results indicated that 43 per cent would vote Labour, 20 per cent Conservative and 4 per cent each for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

The results came as little surprise, and broadly indicate the historic leaning towards Labour among a significant section of the British Sikh community, and British Indians more broadly.

Part of this can be traced back to the legacy of left-leaning organisations, such as the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA), a former president of which, Piara Singh Khabra, became the Labour party MP for Southall Ealing between 1992 and 2007, the first British Sikh to become an MP. Another factor is the passing of legislation such as the Race Relations Act in 1968.

While new immigrants from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s would have been more inclined to support Labour, the story is different when it comes to the Conservatives. In April 1968, Enoch Powell, then the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, delivered his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. This coincided with a time when Sikh bus drivers were fighting for the right to wear turbans at work. Powell had been critical of the Sikh campaign in his constituency. In 1962, the Conservative government passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act which restricted immigration to those with work permits. Historically, therefore, the Conservatives were not a party that Sikhs and other immigrants would have naturally gravitated towards.

Attitudes have shifted with successive Conservative parties over recent decades. Paul Uppal, who is of Sikh heritage, served as the Conservative MP for Powell’s former constituency between 2010 and 2015.

The economic success of British Indians through professions or business more broadly is also in part responsible for a shift in political leaning towards Conservatism. Data from the 2021 Census, for example, shows a higher rate of home ownership among people who identified as Sikh (77.7 per cent) when compared with the rest of the population in England and Wales at 62.7 per cent.

A 2021 survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, indicated support for Labour had eroded among British Indians, particularly Hindus and Christians.

Sikh MPs and candidates in the general election

Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi is the prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Slough in Berkshire. He made history in 2017 as the first turbaned Sikh to enter the Commons. Preet Kaur Gill, the Labour PPC for Birmingham Edgbaston, also made history in 2017 — as the first female Sikh to be elected to parliament.

Both Slough and Birmingham Edgbaston have been highlighted by the The Muslim Vote as constituencies with more than 10 per cent Muslim voters and where independent pro-Palestine candidates are standing.

Tanmanjeet Dhesi has been criticised for abstaining in the parliamentary vote on a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war. In this election, he faces opposition from an independent candidate, Azhar Chohan,  a human rights lawyer and former Labour party case worker, who told the Slough Observer that the town’s diverse communities “feel a lack of genuine representation from the major parties on critical issues affecting them”.

A social media post by The Muslim Vote encouraged Muslims to vote for Mr Chohan, and Mr Dhesi responded on social media, criticising efforts to split the vote on religious lines. Writing on Twitter/X he said: “Some [are] trying to toxify the town and divide our diverse community by importing toxic politics of persuading people to vote based on religion or biradari [brotherhood] — asking one faith to ‘vote in a block’. This election is about our economy and public services. #MoreInCommon than what divides us.”

Labour has an unprecedented number of Sikh and Sikh heritage candidates standing for a parliamentary seat, a total of 16, which includes sitting MPs. They include Gurinder Singh Josan, PPC for Smethwick, west of Birmingham; Neena Gill, a former Member of the European Parliament who is PPC for Bromsgrove, Worcestershire; and Kirith Entwistle, PPC for Bolton North East.

The Conservatives have three candidates of Sikh heritage, including Satbir Gill for the Scottish Conservatives; and Ashvir Sangha, a former President of the Oxford Union,  who is the PPC for Birmingham Edgbaston.

The Lib Dems say they have two candidates “who have chosen to mark their heritage as Sikh”.

The smaller parties such as Reform, and George Galloway’s Workers Party of Great Britain,  also have Sikh heritage candidates.  Former England cricketer Monty Panesar abandoned his plans to stand for the Workers Party last month after one week. He had intended to contest Southall Ealing in west London. Darshan Singh Azad is standing for the Workers Party of Great Britain in Ealing Southall.

Key issues for Sikh voters

Many Sikh voters would have similar issues of concerns to the rest of the electorate: the economy, healthcare, crime, education, housing and asylum and immigration.

Sikh organisations have been pushing the government for parity in public policy when it comes to faith groups in areas such as hate crime. They say the government’s four-year crime strategy, Action Against Hate, has failed to acknowledge the backlash to Islamism suffered by Sikhs and Hindus. Of “Islamophobic hate crime” recorded by the Metropolitan Police in 2015, 28 per cent of the victims of were non-Muslims, including Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and people of no recorded faith.

There are Sikh-specific issues, one of which is the marking of the 40th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army’s attack on the Sri Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, in search of Sikh “militants”.  The number killed is disputed but some reports indicate thousands died, including many innocent pilgrims.

Four months later, in October 1984, the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi — who had ordered Operation Bluer Star — was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Government-orchestrated pogroms followed in Delhi and throughout India.

In 2014, through an inadvertent release of top-secret documents from the UK National Archives in Kew, it was revealed that Britain had dispatched a special forces officer to India to advise the Indian army before the attack on the temple. The Heywood inquiry concluded that British military advice was given, but it had a limited impact.

Despite these findings, some groups suggested the review was a cover-up. Earlier this month, Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader,  tweeted: ‘Today we mark the 40th anniversary of the raid on the Golden Temple. Labour stands with the Sikh community in calling for an inquiry into the historic role Britain played. A Labour government will work to determine the best way to find out the truth.”

Sikh manifesto

The Sikh Network launched the third edition of The Sikh Manifesto on 7 June. It does not represent the views of all Sikhs in Britain.

It suggests there will be one million Sikh voters on 4 July, although this figure is at odds with the 2021 Census data where 525,865 individuals identified themselves as Sikh, 0.9 per cent of the population of England and Wales. According to other national census data, there are 10,988 Sikhs in Scotland and 389 in Northern Ireland.

The manifesto makes several demands, including more effective representation of Sikh issues in parliament; promotion of a better understanding of Sikh identity and way of life; and a demand for more focus on anti-Sikh hate crime. The manifesto adds: “Labour is predicted to have at least 14 Sikh MPs after 4 July 2024.”

The manifesto encourages MPs to join the All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs, whose secretariat has historically been the Sikh Federation.


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