The race to charm the Asian voter

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It's a crucial battleground, and both parties know it. Britain's 1.6 million Asians - by far the largest ethnic minority in the country, representing 3 per cent of the electorate - live in significant numbers in 40 marginal constituencies. The fight for their votes has already begun.

Earlier this month, Tony and Cherie Blair were photographed visiting the Central Mosque in London in celebration of Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. There are plans for further visits to mosques and Hindu temples. The Conservatives, however, are doing better than that. Last week, Michael Heseltine addressed Asian businessmen at a dinner at the Cafe Royal, where he praised their "fascinating sense of achievement". John Major is throwing another banquet for them next month; and in January he took the trouble to visit the sub-continent.

The ostensible purpose of his trip was to strengthen British business ties, but more notice was taken in the Asian press of his meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, HD Deve Gowda, who broke all international protocol at a reception in Bangalore when he took Major aside and told him he hoped he would win.

Labour has traditionally claimed up to 90 per cent of the Asian vote, but the proportion has been declining in the past 10 years, according to both parties. Najabat Hussein, who runs a Kashmiri community centre in Bradford, says the nature of the Asian community has changed. "The first generation of immigrants took jobs as textile workers or bus drivers, and the unions took them in," he says. "They voted along family or tribal lines as they did back home. The present generation of voters understands the system much better."

As a recent survey in the Asian weekly Eastern Eye showed, they are also much richer. Britain's top 100 Asian businessmen, as Michael Heseltine lost no time in pointing out last week at the Cafe Royal, are collectively worth pounds 5bn, and employ 250,000 worldwide. Top of the list is Lakshmi Mittal, a Bombay steel tycoon who is believed to be worth pounds 1.5bn, putting him among the top five richest Britons. As the survey suggests, Asians are moving away from traditional family businesses such as restaurants and newsagents' and into the mainstream, holding important jobs in computing, finance and television.

Indians have historically made better British businessmen than Pakistanis, which may be one explanation for Deve Gowda's remarks in Bangalore. The Tories have always been seen as the party of big business; and last year India did pounds 3.5bn worth of trade with Britain, its fourth largest trading partner. But even the old cliche of Indian economic supremacy in this country is less true than it was. As The News, a British version of the Pakistani newspaper, pointed out with some pride, one third of the 100 Asian new rich are Muslim.

You would expect all this to undermine Labour's traditional supremacy in the ethnic strongholds in the cities and the Midlands. Bradford West is a case in point. The seat, which has a 9,500 Labour majority, has been held since 1983 by Max Madden, a famous House of Commons axe-grinder on the issue of Kashmiri self-determination. At the last election, 16,000 of his 26,000 votes were Asian.

Madden, however, was deselected recently and replaced by a Sikh, Martia Singh. Meanwhile in the blue corner is Mohammed Riaz, a Kashmiri and a former Labour Party candidate. In the past, the Tories have polled less than 10 per cent of the Asian vote in the constituency, but Riaz is confident of gaining well over 50 per cent, and seems certain of winning the seat. Such a result would fly in the face of national trends, but Riaz says the Asian community has always had its own agenda. The 1996 Heaton by- election was won by the Tories, as was the local election at Toller in May 1995; in the same year they lost Bradford Moore, once a Labour majority of 2,500, by just 48 votes.

"Labour has taken the Asian vote for granted but that attitude is now backfiring,'' he says. "Asians feel very let down by Labour. In the Seventies and Eighties they proclaimed themselves the party of equal opportunities, but they didn't deliver. New Labour have promised to reform this country's immigration laws, but who really believes them?" His reasons for switching party are instructive: "I prefer the Conservatives' culture of choice and self-help to Labour's petty ideological disputes. Family values, law and order, enterprise - all these are naturally Asian values."

Another important area where the Conservatives are beating Labour at their own game is the issue of Kashmir, the Himalayan region at the centre of a 50-year-old territorial dispute between Pakistan and India, which has cost the lives of at least 45,000 people. An estimated 65 per cent of Britain's 400,000 Pakistanis are Kashmiris, and Labour MPs like (the deselected) Max Madden have traditionally been seen as the champions of their campaign for self-determination. Robin Cook's National Executive Committee statement of 1995 said that Labour in government would be "prepared to use its close relationship with India and Pakistan to ... assist in a negotiated solution," while the Conservatives have been seen to keep their distance. Some Labour Party activists, such as Azmat Khan, secretary- general of the 22-branch Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (UK) in Bradford, are convinced that a dozen Tory marginals may swing to Labour on this issue. Gary Waller's seat in Keighley, West Yorkshire, is an example: he has perhaps 5,000 Kashmiri constituents and a majority of 3,500.

Waller is convinced of Kashmir's importance - "the number one issue if you're Kashmiri," he says. But as chairman of the Conservative Friends of Kashmir - a lobby group of MPs with large ethnic constituencies - he maintains excellent relations with his Kashmir community and isn't worried about block-voting. Derek Fatchett, Labour foreign affairs spokesman on Asia and MP for Leeds Central, agrees. "It's a bigger issue for the first generation," he says. "It's domestic bread and butter issues that really count for Asians today."

In any case, Tory policy on Kashmir may be changing. Last month in Lahore, John Major remarked to a journalist that any solution in Kashmir "must take account of the people who live there", and that Britain might, if appropriate, play a mediating role - which is just what Labour says. Both Downing Street and the Foreign Office are adamant that there has been no change of policy, but that hasn't stopped those Tory MPs with Kashmiri constituents from waving the transcripts around in triumph.

The Conservative Friends of Kashmir are putting pressure on Malcolm Rifkind to come out with a formal statement on the matter. It looks as though they will need whatever help he can give them. A new MORI poll shows that voting intentions among Asians are overwhelmingly pro-Labour, although perhaps the Tories can take a crumb of comfort from learning that the swing against them is only 5.5 per cent, as compared to 12 per cent among other voters.

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