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TG View: Dissecting the British Tamil vote - UK General Election 2017

The British General Election of 2017 has thrown up some surprising results.

When the election was first called, few could have predicted the outcome. The ruling Conservative Party lost their majority in parliament and the Labour Party clawed back a massive deficit in the polls. The pundits were amiss with their predictions and many, including Prime Minister Theresa May, were left wrong footed by the results.

Analysts from across the political spectrum have begun examining the vote and revisiting their engagement with the electorate, with questions being asked of how the Conservatives lost such a comfortable majority. Amongst the key demographics whose voting intentions will be closely scrutinised in the weeks to come, will be Britain’s ethnic minority groups. With many constituencies across the country having been heavily contested and hanging in the balance between the country's major parties, their role was crucial. British Tamils, who have a considerable presence in many of these constituencies, particularly in London, are one such influential group.

As has been repeatedly noted before, Tamils are engaged in all aspects of social, economic and political life in the UK. Appearances in the Sunday Times Rich List and nominations at the Oscars and Grammy awards are just some of the highlights of the British Tamil community, who also continue to be pillars of the public sector and contribute to a flourishing student life in campuses across the country. And in this election, alongside key issues such as the economy and healthcare, as ever, the British government's policy on Sri Lanka played a large factor in deciding the Tamil vote. Indeed, it continues to be one of the key issues that galvanises the whole community with remarkable unity.

The current British government has, quite simply, been floundering in its approach – both with its engagement with the Sri Lankan state and the local British Tamil community. Led by the Conservative Party and Theresa May, recently Britain has sent signals of appeasement to Colombo, whilst seemingly scaling back on its ties with British Tamils. This miscalculation, has led to setbacks on the island and closer to home.

Sri Lankan troops patrolling through Kilinochchi last month.

The Sri Lankan state has been hesitant and faltered in moving towards bringing a genuine peace on the island. Human rights violations - though largely reduced in number - continue to take place, the military is still deeply involved in Tamil civilian life, thousands of people are still searching for their missing relatives and hundreds languish in jail cells, with the legislation that was used to arrest them due to be replaced with a bill even more draconian. Whilst the current Sri Lankan government attempts to portray itself as a break from the previous regime, it is clear the illiberal core of the ethnocratic state remains unchallenged. Sinhala Buddhist supremacy continues and true reconciliation remains elusive. The recent spate of assaults on Muslims across the island is proof.

Britain, amongst other countries in the international community, has failed to keep Sri Lanka in check. Number 10’s muted reactions to developments on the island have allowed Sri Lanka to regress on its commitments towards reconciliation. This has not gone unnoticed by Colombo, which boasts that international engagement continues unabated, despite its regressions on accountability. Meanwhile, Tamils, including those in the diaspora, are becoming increasingly frustrated.

The Conservative Party should have acknowledged these shortcomings. Instead it attempted to appeal to Tamil voters by brandishing the efforts of previous years. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s trip to Jaffna and his leadership in efforts towards accountability for human rights abuses were all held up by the Conservatives as examples of their commitment to justice for the Tamil people.

However, the party’s present actions belie its past words. Whilst the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to allow international judges into the island - a direct rebuff to Mr Cameron’s calls for an independent international inquiry more than 3 years ago – is not unexpected for many Tamils, it is the Conservative Party’s subdued response to Colombo that undermines its own message the most. Rhetoric on accountability will continue to ring hollow whilst the UK holds remarkably affable relations with Sri Lanka and remains timid and inconsistent on the path towards justice for war crimes. The UK’s latest country guidance on business risk in Sri Lanka alongside the Home Office guidance on asylum seekers, reflects a policy that shows a greater interest in trade deals than the ground realities for Tamils. Senior British officials who speak of bilateral trade and encourage Tamil diaspora investment whilst labelling them 'Sri Lankan' have demonstrated a fundamental - and perhaps disingenuous - misreading of both the enduring ethnic conflict on the island and the sentiment in the diaspora. Tamils across the globe are clear that a firm rebuke of Sri Lanka’s current trajectory is needed. The Conservative Party have found themselves lacking.

Indeed, the sense of investment that the former prime minister displayed on the issue of justice for Tamils, has not been matched by the current party leadership. Mr Cameron mentioned the human rights situation on the island repeatedly during his time in office, reflecting on his meeting with Tamil journalists during a debate on press freedom on one occasion, and describing the ‘No Fire Zone’ film as “one of the most chilling documentaries I’ve watched” on another. His personal reach out to the Tamil community also extended to Thai Pongal greetings praising British Tamils and meeting with the diaspora.

Above right: Former British Premier David Cameron meets with displaced Tamils during his 2013 trip to Jaffna.
Above: Mr Cameron meets with British Tamils in London before departing to Jaffna.

Regrettably, there have been no such moves from Theresa May since she took office last year. Her time as Home Secretary and treatment of Tamil asylum seekers has also not been forgotten. Already under fierce criticism for appearing to shelter away from public engagement, her failure to build a meaningful relationship with British Tamils, in sharp contrast to her predecessor, undoubtedly lost her votes.

Conservative and Labour MPs in London last month.  

It is important to note however that many Conservative MPs have been excellent in their engagement, particularly those who have played a leading role in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPGT). There have been several Conservative parliamentarians who have taken principled stands in calling for justice against genocide. But, leadership must come from the top of the party. Unfortunately, MPs in the APPGT bore the brunt of a floundering foreign policy on Sri Lanka and a lacklustre approach to engagement with one of the most influential and innovative ethnic minority groups in the UK.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign told a very different story. Within months of a sweeping victory at the party’s leadership contest, the veteran MP arranged a public meeting with the Tamil community at the Houses of Parliament. He instantly reiterated his longstanding involvement in the Tamil struggle and disappointment at the international community’s inaction, echoing the sentiment of the community. “We are very committed to the rights of peoples, Tamil people, in this case, to achieve their justice, their self-expression and their self-determination,” he told a crowd of British Tamils to a standing ovation.

He had brought 26 Labour parliamentarians with him.

Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott protesting alongside Tamil asylum seekers in the 1980s.

With much made of the youth vote in this election, it is also worth noting that the increasing number of Tamil students at universities up and down the country – evident by the dozens of thriving Tamil societies at these institutions – were fiercely debating exactly these issues. And alongside the rest of the Tamil community, there was a widespread sense of disappointment with previous and current British policy.

Jeremy Corbyn though offered a refreshing rebuff of past Labour Party policies on Sri Lanka. Previous leaders of the party, including Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, undertook actions such as proscribing the LTTE and providing military equipment to Colombo – moves that Tamils will remember played their own roles in leading to the massacres of 2009. Whilst those two leaders met with Sri Lanka's war crime accused former president Mahinda Rajapakse in London, Mr Corbyn was on the streets alongside Tamil protestors.

Former Labour Party leaders and British Prime Ministers Gordon Brown (left) and Tony Blair (right) meet with Mahinda Rajapakse in London.

His display of support for the Tamil community has been resolute. Indeed, he remains one of the few parliamentarians who stood with British Tamils when the community was sprouting from the early 1980’s. Mr Corbyn even highlighted his work in assisting Tamil asylum seekers during that era – a sharp rebuke to Ms May’s treatment of Tamils who fled Sri Lanka.

His deep-seated involvement with the Tamil struggle, alongside others such as his support for Kurdish self-determination and anti-racism movements, invokes a belief that it is based on principle, rather than pandering to the electorate. Having stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tamil community for decades, there is a widespread hope that he will translate those values into concrete action if elected to office.

Jeremy Corbyn addressing another Tamil rally in London in the early 1980s.

(photograph: Tamil Community Housing Association, London)

Indeed, Mr Corbyn has demonstrated time and again, and particularly with this election, that he will remain sturdy in his beliefs even in the face of relentless pressure. And as was seen with his arrest during protests against South African apartheid, Mr Corbyn has been on the right side of history on several issues, even whilst the then Conservative-led government had branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. They would do well to join him on this issue too.

Whatever the makeup of the next government, there are lessons to be learnt for all parties. Firstly, given the unrelenting Sinhala ethnocracy ruling the island, there remains a palpable frustration within the Tamil nation globally at international inaction. Thus, firm and resolute action is needed from Britain on Sri Lanka. Given Colombo’s continued inaction and broken promises, it is clear that only forceful action will yield any results in the path towards peace and stability. There has been too much appeasement from London, with far too little return from Colombo.  Secondly, meaningful community engagement from the party leadership is vital to winning the trust and support of British Tamils. Unlike her parliamentarians, Ms May failed to reach out to the community and it cost her, whilst to his credit Mr Corbyn led the way for his party and remained steadfast in his support, showing Tamils that he continues to care about their issues, even after obtaining party leadership. His firm stand on the Tamil issue doubtlessly worked well for him and the Labour party, which increased its vote share across the country and particularly in London.

The Tamil diaspora is deeply and comfortably embedded into and continues to influence British life whilst proudly upholding its Tamil heritage. However, it cannot be forgotten that this community largely evolved from a manifestation of Sinhala oppression. Policy makers in Britain must become intimately familiar with this community, who just 8 years ago marched in their hundreds and thousands on the streets of London in the face of unfathomable losses. In many ways, that voice has only grown louder. It is worth listening to it.