THE modern Labour party “is no friend of India”, the prime minister’s “diaspora champion”, Priti Patel, has alleged.
She added: “Labour is all over the place on India.”
Patel, who is defending a Conservative majority of 24,448, in the Essex constituency of Witham, is furious that her letters to Ed Miliband about the “appalling behaviour” of her Labour challenger have gone unanswered.
The Labour candidate in Witham, John Clarke, has also not responded to a request for his side of the story from Eastern Eye.
He is accused of having exceeded the normal bounds of even robust electioneering and making his campaign against Patel both personal and racist. Clarke, who is thought to be a college lecturer, has also attacked Narendra Modi’s government in India.
All this could be dismissed as a row between a Tory and a Labour candidate, except that this particular dispute has much wider political ramifications.
This is because Miliband was pressed to act against the Labour MP in Birmingham Perry Barr, Khalid Mahmood, who appeared on behalf of his party on Radio 4’s Today programme and said India’s human rights record was “much worse” than that of Saudi Arabia.
Miliband’s failure to act against both Mahmood and Clarke is being interpreted by an increasing number of Indian leaders as an indication that he is not going to waste much time in trying to attract Indian-origin voters – even in marginal seats.
Patel was backed by the former foreign secretary and leader of the Commons, William Hague, when Clarke’s behaviour was raised by Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley.
Pressing for a debate on election conduct, Davies said: “My Right Hon Friend may be aware of some of the disgusting smears and lies that have been put out about our Hon Friend the member for Witham (Priti Patel) by the Labour candidate.” Hague declined the request for a debate, but agreed with Davies: “We believe in vigorous political debate in our elections, but I have seen comments made about my Hon Friend the member for Witham that are offensive, malicious and often false, and which will be particularly offensive to women and people of Asian origin.
It is time the Labour party took that in hand in Witham.” Patel told EE Clarke had been attacking her for a year, “targeting my husband, telling lies – the matter is serious”.
She added she wanted to draw the attention of Indians, in particular, to some of Clarke’s observations. In relation to a report on India’s rural employment programme, Clarke tweeted: “I see your mate Modi deals with India’s poor the same way you Tories deal with UK poor.”
On agreements between India and UK, Clarke’s offering was: “Those business agreements; are they about exporting British workers jobs to India?”
There was a comment likening her to a UKIP character in a television drama: “Did the character Deepa on the Channel 4 programme UKIP first 100 days remind u of anyone? Like…selling out principles, etc.” Patel said she had been attacked for being “a very poor role model for women, let alone Asian women”. The increasing difficulty for Miliband is that he is being embarrassed by a number of Labour candidates who are taking an anti-India line.
“The comments made by Labour’s candidate are disgusting and offensive,” said Patel.
“Members of the diaspora across the UK will be appalled by the contempt being shown to them by John Clarke and the Labour party.
“We should be proud of our strengthening ties with India and the work we are doing with the Indian government, which often involves supporting British Asian businesses.
“It is disgraceful that the Labour party and their candidate standing in Witham would sneer at that.” The Labour Party appeared to concede that Clarke has overstepped the line.
An East of England Labour party spokesperson said: “The candidate has apologised for any offence caused and we are satisfied that any inaccuracies will not be repeated.”
The apology from Clarke to Patel read: “I would like to apologise to you for any offence caused and assure you any inaccuracies will not be repeated.”
But in her second letter to Miliband, Patel pointed out: “This apology does not explain what particular statements and comments he is apologising for and gives no details of the actions which he and the Labour Party will now undertake… This feeble apology, therefore, seems insincere.”
“My constituents expect you to take strong action over this matter, which you have thus far failed to do,” she said. “Your continuing failure to reply to my correspondence also demonstrates a clear lack of leadership and reflects badly on you and your party.”