With elections in the United Kingdom due in a few months and their party enjoying a significant lead in opinion polls, two senior leaders from the opposition Labour Party are on a three-day visit to India to speak to senior ministers as well as business leaders. Stating that India is a “huge powerhouse”, the leaders stressed the importance of the UK-India relationship, calling it a deep people-to-people connection spanning generations.
In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with NDTV on Tuesday, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and the shadow business and trade secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, also spoke about the Labour Party’s support for the delayed India-UK Free Trade Agreement and India’s transformation in the past two decades.
Shadow ministers, appointed by the leader of the opposition in the UK, take up roles mirroring the government and are responsible for not only scrutinising the policies of the government in their specific areas, but also questioning their counterparts in the cabinet in Parliament and other domains.
To a question on why they chose to visit India now, when elections are due in both countries, Mr Lammy said, “The relationship between the United Kingdom and India transcends whoever is in government. This is an important strategic relationship, a history that goes back many, many generations, a deep people-to-people connection, as well as a business-to-business connection.”
The Labour Party leader said that, if his party comes to power, it wants to understand the views of the Indian government, as well as business leaders, and identify opportunities. The objective, he said, is also to underline that his party’s focus is growth.
With that objective in mind, he said, “We recognise that India, this huge powerhouse, growing economy, growing population, growth against the backdrop, where other parts of the world, and certainly in Europe, are not seeing anything like the growth, there are key opportunities for us going forward. Yes, we are working on a trade deal. But that is the floor of our relationship, not the ceiling. There’s much more to do in the years ahead.”
Trade Deal Delays
Asked about statements from the Conservative Party government, when former Prime Minister Liz Truss was in office, that the deal would be signed by Diwali 2022 and what the Labour Party would do if the agreement was not in place if and when it came to power, Mr Reynolds said he was aware that there were some worries about the elections in both countries affecting the timeline.
“We have come to make clear that if the Labour Party does form the next government in the UK, this is something we support, that we would want to implement or continue those negotiations. Of course, for both sides, it is going to be a good deal. It is going to work commercially. But there are clearly areas where we can see the potential for that to be something very significant indeed,” he said.
Mr Reynolds stressed that reducing tariffs for textiles imported to the UK from India and for scotch and whiskey flowing the other way were obvious areas, but access to services is also critical.
“People shouldn’t think that we just want to finish this trade deal, get it done – as significant as it would be – and that’s the end. There are a whole range of further areas of collaboration. We have talked to people about technology, about defence, about what collaboration on the green transition might mean, not just for India and the UK, but for the rest of the world. The collaboration that we could do together, could really have such a positive and beneficial impact,” he added.
‘Support India Joining UN Security Council’
On how the India-UK relationship has changed – with India overtaking the country to become the fifth-largest economy and poised to be the third-largest economy by 2030 – and whether the Labour Party backs New Delhi’s push for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, Mr Lammy said, “The levels of growth here, the growing, burgeoning middle class, the gripping of education and skills, the dynamism of the economy are exemplary. And there’s much to learn. I think, as I come here, and I have now visited India on many, many occasions. I remember one of my first trips 22 years ago, as a young minister in Tony Blair’s government, and the transition has been immense. “
“Let me just say, of course, we support India joining the UN Security Council alongside Germany, Japan, Brazil, and Africa as well, very, very important, indeed. The world is changing and multilateral partnership is essential. And in that sense, India remains and will continue to be a key partner of the UK and our allies. We have a long history. There’s much that we can do together in a dangerous world,” he added.
Kashmir, Khalistani Issue
Former labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn had been criticised for saying that he supported a proposal for an Independent Kashmir but the new labour leader, Keir Starmer, has corrected that. Another sticking point between India and the UK has been the reaction to the Khalistani protests at the Indian High Commission last year.
Asked for the Labour Party’s stand on both issues, Mr Lammy said, “First, Jeremy Corbyn is not in the Labour Party any longer. We have had dramatic changes since the 2019 election, led by Keir Starmer, and that is important to emphasise. And that has put us in a position where, once again, we hope to have the privilege of serving in a government.”
“…the issues of Kashmir are complex, 75 years old and beyond, they are centrally issues for India, for Pakistan and the Kashmiri people. And we understand that in the British Labour Party,” he said.
Mr Lammy also reiterated that his party has zero tolerance for “extremist behaviour”.
On the anti-immigration rhetoric by Conservative MP and former home secretary Suella Braverman and others, Mr Reynolds said India and the UK share a strong relationship and his country is welcoming.
Asked whether he thought the recent rhetoric was racist, he said, “I think a lot of what we’ve seen from the Conservative government on immigration, how they’ve tackled this, yes. How they fundamentally, I think, sent out a message that might be unwelcoming, it is a challenge, it is a problem.”
The Labour Party, he said, recognises the benefit of the global economy and championing its strengths, including higher education.
Rishi Sunak As PM
To a question on Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister being celebrated in India and the Labour Party’s declining support among the Indian community in Great Britain, Mr Lammy spoke about the history between the two countries, pointed out his own personal connection with India and emphasised that the relationship between the two countries “supersedes” the person who is Prime Minister in the UK or who is in power in New Delhi.
“I and the Labour Party also took great comfort and pleasure in the election of Rishi Sunak as the first UK Prime Minister of Indian origin, and that’s personal to me. My family, my father, arrived in the UK from Guyana in 1956. My mother’s grandmother was from (then) Calcutta. She arrived in Guyana as an indentured worker after the end of slavery in the century before last. So, look, our history is immense,” the leader said.
“I think that the relationship between the UK and India supersedes whoever is in Number 10 or running India and I know you’ve got elections ahead, because it’s an important relationship. It’s an important partnership, not just a win-win for our two economies, but for the global community,” he stressed.
The two leaders also spoke about the role of Indian investment in the UK, both countries cherishing the democratic tradition and how the Labour Party is, despite its lead, not complacent about coming to power after 14 years.