Mint Explainer: What the Labour Party's victory means for India-UK relations

Sir Keir Starmer was set to become the next prime minister of UK after he defeated Conservative Party's Rishi Sunak. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (AFP)
Sir Keir Starmer was set to become the next prime minister of UK after he defeated Conservative Party's Rishi Sunak. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (AFP)


  • Analysts believe that collaborations between India and the UK could create a win-win situation for both economies but navigating the complex issues like FTA, Kashmir and Khalistan will require sensitivity and deft diplomacy

"It's a bloodbath!" declared the BBC as the UK's Conservative Party faced its worst electoral defeat in decades. On the other hand, headlines across media platforms heralded a Labour Party victory. 

The results, which poured in on Friday, indicated Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer was set to become the next occupant of Number 10 Downing Street, the office of the UK’s prime minister.

With a Labour government set to take charge in the UK after 14 years of Conservative or Tory rule, what will it mean for India? How will the incoming Labour government deal with issues like trade, immigration and security vis a vis India? Mint looks at the ways the India-UK relationship could evolve under the prime ministership of Keir Starmer.

Historical context

Historically, Indians have viewed the Labour Party favourably, stemming from prime minister Clement Atlee's tenure when India gained independence in 1947.

Notably, some of the earliest resolutions by the UN Security Council on Jammu and Kashmir favouring Pakistan over India also happened during Atlee's tenure between 1945 and 51. 

The first ever UNSC resolution on Kashmir in January 1948 equated Pakistan, the aggressor according to India, who sent Pasthun tribesmen in Jammu and Kashmir – and India. 

The UNSC resolution called on India and Pakistan “to immediately take all measures within their power … calculated to improve the situation and to refrain from making any statements and doing or causing to be done or permitting any acts which might aggravate the situation."

More recently, India had a rather chequered relationship with the Labour Party. The 1997 visit of Queen Elizabeth II to India and Pakistan, to mark 50 years of independence of the nations, was overshadowed by the then British foreign secretary Robin Cook's remarks offering to mediate on the Kashmir issue. 

New Delhi, which has insisted that the Kashmir issue would be sorted out bilaterally between India and Pakistan, was understandably upset by the comments. 

In 2008, then Labour foreign secretary David Miliband also ruffled Indian feathers when he urged New Delhi to resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan to ensure a stop to terrorist attacks like the one in Mumbai on 26-29 November, 2008. 

Miliband had also refrained from blaming Pakistan directly for the attack though he did name the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba group as the group behind the terrorist strike. India had hit back, saying the Mumbai attacks were not related to Jammu and Kashmir but part of “global terrorism".

Many things have changed since then. In 2022, India overtook Britain to become the fifth-largest economy in the world. According to analysts, the Indian community in the UK numbers 1.6 million. It is seen as educated, affluent, and politically active. India is also the second largest investor in the UK. There are an estimated 900 Indian-owned companies employing some 110,000 people. The UK, on its part, looks at India as a major market, especially after its exit from the European Union.

Last week, human rights lawyer turned Labour leader Starmer visited the Swaminarayan Temple in north London and spoke of eradicating so-called “Hinduphobia" from the UK. He also reportedly expressed solidarity with the British Hindu community over recent attacks of vandalism.

Analyst C. Raja Mohan, in an article in The Indian Express this week, said that the outgoing Tory group had ensured they had built a solid foundation for India-UK ties for Starmer to build on– freeing it up from issues like Kashmir and framing them in the context of the Indo-Pacific. However, one has to see how things work under the Labour government in the coming days.

Free Trade Agreement

One of the key issues on the agenda for India and the UK’s new Labour government would be working out a trade pact. Negotiations have been ongoing for the past two years, aiming for a mutual tariff relaxation on a range of goods, including cars, clothes, alcoholic beverages and medical devices. 

However, India could face pressure from Labour negotiators on climate-related issues. India has reportedly sought relaxations on the carbon tax that the UK plans to implement taking a leaf out the European Union book. India’s argument is that the imposition of the carbon tax could take away much of the concessions agreed upon in the FTA.

Mobility and immigration

Immigration could be a problem area in FTA negotiations. Despite the stark divide between the Tory and Labour Parties on policies, they agreed on the need to restrict immigration. India wants temporary visas for its service sector workers under the FTA. 

India has a large youth population and has been negotiating mobility and migration pacts with various countries, including those in Europe, to integrate its youth into the global workforce. 

Many Indian students who travel to study in the UK also look forward to working there for a certain period to pay off student loans. And there have been periodic threats from the British government to revoke this facility. 

Former PM Theresa May, as home secretary, had imposed the rule that forced overseas students to leave four months after finishing a degree in 2012. It was reversed by the Boris Johnson government in 2019. 

With mobility and migration being a “political hot potato" in the UK (recall Tory plans to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda), India should brace for some tough bargaining on this count.  

Kashmir issue

The relationship between the Modi government in India and the new Starmer government will also hinge on Labour's approach to India's security concerns. New Delhi has been traditionally wary of the Labour Party’s slant towards Pakistan and its position on the Kashmir dispute. 

A major cause for this is the presence of a large Pakistani diaspora, especially from Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the UK. 

They have traditionally voted en masse for Labour, while the Indian-origin Britons have voted for Tory and Labour. The Mirpuri vote, it is said, can tip the balance in some 30-40 out of the 650 seats in the UK parliament. It is against this backdrop that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn slammed India’s revocation of Article 370 of India’s constitution in 2019, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir. 

Under Corbyn, a Labour Party conference in Brighton passed a resolution that supported "international intervention in Kashmir and a call for UN led-referendum" in September 2019. India had slammed the move.

Incidentally, 2024 marks 40 years since Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre, serving as assistant commissioner at India's consulate in Birmingham, was kidnapped and killed by terrorists seeking secession of Kashmir from India. Those who kidnapped Mhatre had demanded the release of terrorist Maqbool Butt and nine others, besides 1 million pounds as ransom. The murder was reportedly ordered by Amanullah Khan, then chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.

Khalistan controversy

Another security concern of India is the heightened activity of Sikh separatists demanding a separate state of Khalistan carved out of India’s Punjab. In recent years, there has been an uptick in protests. In March 2023, the Indian High Commission in London was attacked by a group of about 50 people, who entered the lawns of the High Commission and took down the national flag. The Indian government had registered a strong protest with the UK authorities and the UK police arrested one person, according to news reports.

The problem areas notwithstanding, there is much that India and the UK can do together. One is in the area of defence where India is looking to transform itself into a military hardware exporting nation.

Analysts believe that collaboration between companies in both countries could create a win-win situation for their economies. The pharmaceutical sector is a prime example, with the Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd partnering UK's AstraZeneca to manufacture the Covishield vaccine in 2021. 

Another promising area is the small and medium-scale sector, where mutual benefits can be achieved through partnerships. The India-UK Roadmap 2030, outlined in May 2021 by Indian PM Narendra Modi and then UK PM Boris Johnson, elevated the India-UK relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). This roadmap identifies several key areas for collaboration, including trade, climate, science and technology, and defense.

But for all this to take off, both countries need to carefully manage the relationship's so-called pressure points, which will require sensitivity and sometimes deft diplomacy.

Elizabeth Roche is associate professor, Jindal Global University, Haryana.

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