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Friday, 17 June 2011

Sri Lanka through the letter box

Onto my doormat on Tuesday fell a leaflet from British Tamils Forum (BTF), urging me to watch that night's Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka's Killing Fields; I recorded the programme and will watch it. Whether BTF leafleted all local doormats, or only the doormats of people who stood for Parliament last year, I don't know.

Along with Israel/Palestine and Cyprus, Sri Lanka is one of the big three foreign policy issues confronting any Parliamentary candidate in a North London seat like Hendon. The Tamil Guardian therefore contacted me during the election campaign to ask what I thought about Sri Lanka. Not knowing a huge amount about it, I found out what my party's foreign affairs spokesman had previously said about it and echoed that in my response to the paper. This generated a negative response from some non-Tamil members of the local Sri Lankan community, whose views were communicated to me through a Lib Dem colleague of their acquaintance. 

What, I was asked, would I think if Sri Lankan people had a go about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians? To which my response was that, within reason, I don't care who has a go about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and a great many people frequently do. My correspondence with these constituents prompted me not only to revise the original blog post (to make it more even-handed in my comments on the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers; that's the version of the post that's up there now), but also to write another post clarifying my previous comments. If in doubt, clarify what you've said - that's my advice to anybody whose remarks, on any contentious topic, have inadvertently offended anybody.

So, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus and Sri Lanka, the big three, reflecting the concerns of some of the different communities that live in parts of North London. Doubtless, in other parts of North London, issues relating to Kurds and Somalia loom equally large and this presumably all started in the nineteenth century with issues relating to Ireland. Of course, voters are actually individuals, regardless of which groups they happen to have been born into, and a great many people don't consider themselves to be part of any 'community' in any organised sense (including, of course, that majority of people who are, let's not forget, not part of any minority community to start with). 

What various minority communities do often have is vocal leaders (real or imagined) and a good few people who are very interested in these particular questions of foreign policy. These issues can therefore become something of a litmus test for any candidate; if what you have to say on one of these issues is considered to be mistaken or insubstantial, then word will go quickly go round among opinion-formers in the communities concerned. Given that most British people tell opinion-pollsters that they cannot name their local MP, let alone the other candidates, I would caution against exaggerating the importance of all of this; the 'leader' of one local African community promised me so much support from his community in Hendon that, if he had delivered, I would have got thousands more votes than I actually did - I'm not sure that the community concerned was even as large as this guy thought it was, never mind how its individual members eventually voted in the privacy of the polling booth.

After the 2005 General Election, I saw private polling that showed that Palestine had become the top foreign policy issue for younger British Muslims; the older generation, many of whom had themselves migrated to the UK from the Indian sub-continent, had been more interested in Kashmir than they were in the Middle East. So, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus and Sri Lanka. Leading to some very strong campaigning by people on different sides of the argument, and some right old rows about the nature of some of that campaigning. What's terrific is that these issues generate some election meetings at which the candidates argue about more than the state of the local drains; you can view one such fiery meeting, organised by Barnet Muslim Forum, online.

What's interesting also is that MPs for seats like Hendon can gain a reputation as being strong advocates for action on issues of concern to one community or another. However, I would argue that it is possible for the MP for such a seat to bang on so incessantly about such issues that there is a risk of overkill; I would also say that Hendon's Matthew Offord has avoided this risk so far. In the 1980s, a Tory MP was quoted as saying that the young Charles Kennedy was liked in Parliament because he only spoke when he actually had something to say. If a North London MP is constantly raising a particular community's perceived concerns, and everyone knows that the community in question looms large among that MP's electors, then I wonder just how much other MPs (and ministers) will really be interested in hearing what the MP has to say about these things? Whereas, if you are, for example, Sir Alan Beith, the MP for Berwick Upon Tweed, and you only (as President of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel) speak on Israel-related matters when you definitely have something new and distinctive to say, then you will be listened to in a way that makes a difference.

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