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  • Writer's pictureHersh Thaker

The Labour Party's Relationship with India: A Critical Path for the Next Decade

This article was originally written for and published by iGlobal as part of my regular column.

Earlier this month, Keir Starmer inaugurated the 5th annual UK-India week and described wanting an "open-handed, respectful, forward-looking, and aspirational" relationship with India. This positive and sensible tone demonstrated a commitment to reset Labour's relationship with the country, following strains that emerged under the previous leadership. It was an important movement because the UK's relationship with India will be paramount in the coming decade.

As Britain tries to find a new identity on the world stage after Brexit, the relationship with a new confident, emboldened, aspirational India must be a priority. The lack of a coherent vision for our place in the world offered by this government makes it ever more important for the Labour Party to provide it instead.

Economic Development

India has become the de facto leader of the global south, a reputation it has looked to entrench in the year of its G20 presidency. Whether it's energy security, food security, migration or debt, the issues facing the global south are the central geo-political challenges of our day. Therefore, a government wanting to demonstrate the moral leadership that Britain should be showing will need to work with India to address them.

Even for our self-interest, India, the world's most populous country with a rapidly growing middle class, presents an enticing market for post-Brexit Britain. It is the second-largest contributor of foreign direct investment (FDI) into the UK and has a deep cultural link to Britain through its history and the British Indian diaspora.

It is an economic and geo-political relationship a future Labour government must nurture.

The UK-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) could provide another such opportunity. Negotiations commenced last week for the UK-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA), currently in its 11th round of talks.

A deal before next year's Indian elections looks increasingly unlikely to be signed. There are still several hurdles to clear on the FTA before finalising an agreement. Migration will be one of those challenges.

India is seeking easier access for its workers to the UK market, whilst the Tories are prisoners to their anti-immigration narrative. The denial of reality the government is currently suffering from means although we have a shortage of skilled workers of the like India could offer, it could still be challenging for Sunak to rally support within his party for a deal that allows more foreign workers in. It will also be difficult to envision India signing an agreement without such provisions.

Labour may need to pick up the pieces of this FTA and could hit the ground running if the Tories fail to get it over the line before a general election. The FTA makes shaping the narrative towards India and building bridges from now become ever more crucial.

Climate Change

The next decade is pivotal in the global transition towards a cleaner energy system. Where the Tories show little vision or interest, the Labour Party has prioritised climate change on the policy agenda. Collaboration with India is essential in this area. Prime Minister Modi recognised the next decade's importance and called for global action at the leader's summit in 2021. He set ambitious decarbonisation and biodiversity targets for India to transition millions out of poverty while building a cleaner energy system.

Hence, a strong relationship with India gives a Labour government that is serious on climate change an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Working together on green infrastructure, biodiversity, mobilising finance for clean energy and technologies, and collaborating on global decision making on climate action are areas of potential partnerships.

A Government in Waiting

Under Keir Starmer's leadership, the Labour Party has turned a page on many issues. One is recognising the strategic importance of the relationship with India and showing a desire to build those bridges.

There have been several examples of this recognition in recent months. Keir Starmer's speech at the UK-India forum, Navendu Mishra, has re-established the Labour Convention of Indian Organisations (LCIO) to engage with the British Indian Diaspora. Only recently has LCIO partnered with the UK-India Business Council to host a briefing on the FTA. Here, Nick Symonds reiterated Labour's commitment to ensuring a deal is in place. Yvette Cooper also met with the High Commissioner of India, Vikram Doraiswami, and Keir Starmer spoke at the first-ever celebration of Indian independence held in Parliament.

Manoj Ladwa, the founder of the UK-India Forum, rightly emphasised the need to prioritise the relationship with India and to prevent it from being "held hostage to the vagaries of domestic politics". By adopting the open, respectful, forward-looking, and aspirational approach that Starmer outlined, Labour can indeed look forward to strengthening the bond between the two nations. The economic potential of India, coupled with collaborative efforts on climate change, underscores the significance of this relationship.

With effective leadership and continued dialogue and engagement with India and its diaspora, Labour can secure a brighter future together. The relationship brings an additional electoral benefit of appealing to those voters who seek a dynamic and prosperous partnership with India.


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