The NDTV Dialogues: Labour Party's Outreach To India

PUBLISHED ON: February 6, 2024 | Duration: 21 min, 22 sec

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In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with NDTV on Tuesday, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and the shadow business and trade secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, also spoke about the Labour Party's support for the delayed India-UK Free Trade Agreement and India's transformation in the past two decades. 

The two senior leaders from the opposition Labour Party are on a three-day visit to India to speak to senior ministers as well as business leaders. Stating that India is a "huge powerhouse", the leaders stressed the importance of the UK-India relationship, calling it a deep people-to-people connection spanning generations.

Here is the full transcript of the discussion:

NDTV: Hello and welcome to the NDTV Dialogues. Half of the world's population is voting this year, India of course in a few months and also the United States and the United Kingdom. Polls in the United Kingdom are giving the Labour Party a winning lead after 14 years in the opposition and outreach to build a new UK-India Strategic Partnership are two of Labour's senior politicians, the shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy, and the shadow Business and Trade Secretary Jonathan Reynolds. Thank you both very much for being on the NDTV Dialogues.

The timing of this visit is really interesting for us. We have got an election countdown in India, and perhaps polls in the UK by autumn or definitely by January next year. Why did you choose this time to come? You've talked about building a new UK-India Strategic Partnership, which Labour has proposed. Why do you think this was the right time?

David Lammy: Well, the first thing to say is that the relationship between the United Kingdom and India transcends whoever is in government. This is an important strategic relationship, a history that goes back many generations, a deep people-to-people and business-to-business connection. Of course, I'm here with Jonathan to underline that. It's also the case that if there is to be a change of government, and if we have the privilege to serve, we must understand the views of our Indian friends, business and industry, and where the opportunities are to go forward. And the key message that I want to leave with people is that 'growth, growth, growth', is our objective in the Labour Party. If we have the privilege to serve, then we have to recognise that India, a huge powerhouse, a growing economy, with a growing population, a growth against the backdrop, where other parts of the world and certainly in Europe are not seeing anything like the growth, there are key opportunities for us going forward. Yes, we're working on a trade deal. But that is the floor of our relationship, not the ceiling. There's much more to do in the years ahead.

NDTV: That's interesting, because of course, one Tory Prime Minister ago we were told that a UK-India FTA would be in place by that Diwali. We've got, we passed those Diwalis. There's another one coming up. And your leader, Keir Starmer, described it as a 'Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham' situation in the UK-India FTA. What do you see as the major hurdles? And what would Labour do to fix that in case it's not signed before the next election?

Jonathan Reynolds: Well, a lot of people have promised a trade deal by certain dates, but we are here partly because as you say, the nature of an election in India and one in the UK means there is, I know some worry about how that timescale might impact those negotiations. We've come to make clear that if the Labour Party forms the next government in the UK, this is something we support. We would want to implement or continue those negotiations. Of course, for both sides, it's going to be a good deal. It's going to work commercially. But there are areas where we can see the potential for that to be something very significant indeed, and of course, for the UK to be...

NDTV: Which areas would you see those as?

Jonathan Reynolds: Well, I think at the heart of that, you've got an opportunity clearly. You'd expect to reduce tariffs in certain areas like textiles in India which is particularly significant. The one that's often given in the UK is, of course, scotch and whiskey. But that's just one area where we can see that improvement. Services access is crucial. Now, how do we do that? That tends to be a harder part of negotiations. But alongside that, the investment treaty that's been discussed, these are things that we really could. Now, we don't want to go into shallow negotiations that were not part of that. But I think we both recognise what a significant opportunity this could be. But I want to reiterate what my colleague David has said because people shouldn't think that we just want to finish this trade deal and get it done no matter how significant it would be. And that's the end. There is a whole range of further areas for collaboration. We've talked to people about technology, defence and the collaboration on the green transition might mean, not just for India and the UK, but for the rest of the world. It's a collaboration that we could do together, that could have such a positive and beneficial impact. And I find that personally very exciting.

NDTV: Now, in a sense, the India-UK relationship has changed. One aspect, of course, is that we overtook Great Britain to become the world's fifth-largest economy. We're aiming now for the third-largest economy by 2030. How much do you think that's changed the way the two partners view each other, even negotiate with each other? And the fact that geopolitically also, India has taken a much more vocal role as leader of the Global South, in terms of asking for reform of multilateral institutions like the United Nations Security Council. Where do you see the new power balance? And where does the UK exactly stand in that?

David Lammy: Well, I welcome the position that India finds itself in as one of the world's great, large democracies. That is hugely important. The levels of growth here, the growing, burgeoning middle class, the gripping of education and skills and the dynamism of the economy are exemplary. There's much to learn. I think as I come here, and I've now visited India on many occasions, I remember one of my first trips 22 years ago, as a young minister in Tony Blair's government, and the transition has been immense. Let me just say, of course, we support India joining the UN Security Council alongside Germany, Japan, Brazil, and Africa as well, very, very important, indeed. The world is changing and multilateral partnerships are essential. And in that sense, India remains and will continue to be a key partner of the UK and our allies. We have a long history. There's much that we can do together in a dangerous world. And I'm very pleased to be meeting with your Foreign Secretary, once again on this trip, but also to speak to your national security as well, about the issues of shared concern.

NDTV: I just wanted to bring up foreign policy because, of course, with Labour and I think that in the sense did sour our relations between Labour and the Indian Foreign Ministry when Jeremy Corbyn had said at that time that he supports a proposal for an independent Kashmir. Now, of course, Keir Starmer has since corrected that. But do clarify for us what Labour's stand is on Kashmir and also another sticking point with the UK and India has been the reaction to Khalistani protests last year at the Indian High Commission, and also the fact that the Sikhs for Justice routinely issues threats against Indian political leaders, and we feel that the UK response could have been stronger. What does Labour think?

David Lammy: Well, let me reiterate some fundamentals here. First, Jeremy Corbyn is not in the Labour Party any longer. We have had dramatic changes since the 2019 election, led by Keir Starmer, and that is important to emphasise. And that has put us in a position where, once again, we hope to have the privilege of serving in a government. The second is to condemn entirely the extremist and destructive behaviour we saw in relation to the Indian High Commission in London, I was pretty robust in my comments at the time, and I'm happy to reiterate that again, we absolutely have to have zero tolerance of any extremist behaviour. And that includes extremist elements of the Khalistani community, absolutely. But it's also to be clear that the vast majority of Sikhs in our own country and here in India are peace-loving people. And it is to underline that the issues of Kashmir are complex, 75 years old and beyond, they are centrally issues for India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri people. And we understand that in the British Labour Party.

NDTV: What do you back, for instance, India has already called SFJ a terrorist organisation. Would you call for stronger action against groups which call for assassination threats against Indian political leaders from UK soil?

David Lammy: I have not got the intelligence as a member of the UK opposition, but I do condemn entirely extremist behaviour from wherever it comes from. We have to be robust about that. Whilst of course recognizing that the Labour Party is an internationalist party it's a party that believes in human rights. But we cannot have any truck with violence or extremism from wherever it's found.

NDTV: Let me ask you, Mr. Reynolds, and you talked about the services sector. And one thing I think, has bothered many Indians, is the fact that with Indians, the mobility aspect, because of course, you see, Indian students are now amongst the highest international student population in the United Kingdom. But we hear this anti-immigration rhetoric, which for many people borders on the racist, whether it came from Suella Braverman, or before that, the former Home Secretary. How is Labour going to actually combat that? And what will your view be given that immigration is such a political hot button in the UK elections?

Jonathan Reynolds: Well, look, I want everyone to know how much we value the relationship between India and the UK. The fact that when you're here on a delegation, so many people tell you that they studied in the UK or lived there for a while, what a tremendous basis for a strong relationship. And of course, whether it is people coming for higher education, whether it is Indian companies, or entrepreneurs investing in the UK, we fundamentally welcomed that. Now the UK has a points-based immigration system, it's a system that is designed to serve the best interests of the UK economy. And we're very comfortable talking about the benefits that that brings. It's clearly one that has restrictions built into it. That's the nature of a points-based system. And I wouldn't, it would upset me if I thought that anyone thinks that the UK wasn't welcoming, that I hope people will see a different approach, can see the different approach that we bring from the Labour Party to that.

NDTV: Did you find that some of the recent rhetoric being used was racist?

Jonathan Reynolds: I think a lot of what we've seen from the Conservative government on immigration, how they've tackled this, yes. How they fundamentally I think, sent out a message that might be unwelcoming, it is a challenge, it is a problem. You know, and I think if I look to the future of whether the UK can play a role in the global economy, that is very much to the interests of ourselves in the UK, it's through championing our strengths, championing the things that we're good at, and higher education is part of that. And we are just much more comfortable on the Labour side and recognising that benefit. And I hope people can see the different change of tone and approach that we will bring to that. Of course, there have got to be limits on immigration. But that's what a Points-Based System is designed to do, to serve the interest of your economy. And I can say from complete sincerity that the relationship that has meant for it, whether it's Indian students coming into businesses coming to the UK, we see as an unreservedly positive and welcoming thing.

NDTV: We talk, we talk so often a multicultural Britain and I think that since Prime Minister Sunak became Prime Minister was seen as a cause of celebration in India as well. But how do you think Labour will, because, of course, we've seen that Labour's support amongst the Indian community in Great Britain, the largest ethnic minority in Great Britain has fallen dramatically. I think 2019 polls showed it's now about 30%, almost half from what it was once at 60%. How would you combat a proud Hindu Prime Minister, as opposed to a Labour Prime Minister?

David Lammy: Well, let me say that I and the Labour Party also took great comfort and pleasure in the election of Rishi Sunak as the first UK Prime Minister of Indian origin, and that's personal to me. My family, my father, arrived in the UK from Guyana in 1956. My mother's grandmother was from Calcutta. She arrived in Guyana as an indentured worker after the end of slavery in the century before last. So, look, our history is immense. And I'm, that's why it's always wonderful for me to come back to India, you know, there's lots that I, the curries are something that I've grown up with all of my life.

Look, I think that the relationship between the UK and India supersedes whoever is in Number 10 or running India and I know you've got elections ahead because it's an important relationship. It's an important partnership, not just a win-win for our two economies, but for the global community. And so we will fight for every election and there are areas of the country I'm thinking of, Harrow and Brent, where there are historic Indian populations, voting Labour, and we'll be fighting to encourage them to do that. That's why we're here interviewing with you.

NDTV: And of course, I want to ask Mr. Reynolds because you're talking about credit business investment, but the latest Labour attack on the Prime Minister has been about so-called allegations of VIP access to Infosys. Now given that Infosys is the biggest, one of our biggest software services providers, isn't it awfully counterproductive, that when anything to do with Infosys is seen as Rishi Sunak's family getting preference, or VIP access, as the Labour puts it?

Jonathan Reynolds: We do want to see greater business investment in the UK, we think that the link between our poor, business investments at present under the Conservative body relates to our poor productivity. And that has come through in a very disappointing way to growth now for quite some time. So all of our agenda is based on doing that. And particularly obviously, we want to attract inward investment to the UK to make that story

NDTV: Including Infosys, I guess.

Jonathan Reynolds: Well, every company, whether it is from around the world globally, particularly because of the role of Indian investment in the UK, this is a really important thing to us. Now, all we want is to be open, transparent, and available to everyone. So it's not about any one particular company. But there are concerns in the UK about what has been described as the VIP playing around with your companies who were introduced around the pandemic. Surely, a healthy, robust system should be about open opportunities for everyone. That's why we're talking to everyone. While we're here, we're telling them about opportunities in the energy transition in the services sector and professional financial services. We want that to be open to everyone. That is all we ask. And that is all we will put forward. But we are confident that our agenda is a better one for business investment in the UK.

NDTV: Though, of course, it does sometimes seem personal about Mr Sunak, because given that Labour has also said that you want to abolish the Non-dom tax. And that, of course, became a controversy around his wife Akshata, which she was later cleared of. So it does seem like it becomes a bit personal and political then.

Jonathan Reynolds: Changes are proposed, changes to that particular tax regime, not about one any person at all. We've made clear, our shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves repeatedly says, all we ask is if you have made the UK your home, you pay the appropriate amount of tax in the UK that you should do. And of course, we recognise the old-fashioned Non-dom regime which we want to change, would need to be replaced by something where people in the UK for a short period would pay an appropriate level of taxation on their UK earnings similar to every other country in the world. But people will know that the history of the Non-dom regime goes back a long time, to an era that is no longer appropriate, and there are concerns about a whole range of people making sure they are paying the right level of tax in the UK. All that policy is designed to do is to put that right, and give people confidence that that is the regime we have, it is not targeted or based on any kind of political attack on anyone. It's about making sure we have a fair, robust and transparent process. And when people raise concerns about the overall level of taxation in the UK, we say we recognise that. The reason taxes are high by historic standards in the UK is that growth has been so low. So again, that comes back to our agenda about growth, about opportunity, about growing the economy and reducing that burden in future.

NDTV: Okay, so you'll be here also and we've got some other England guests here. The English Cricket team and we let them win one test match. Are you following that? And what do you say about it, because some areas are always sensitive and cricket is one of them?

David Lammy: Well, I grew up watching cricket. I grew up cheering also for the West Indies where they won but watching great, great Indian cricket. I think most people thought that we could not win in India this time. So good to see us, when was the test? Let's see it, let's follow it and see, see where we get to in the few weeks that are remaining.

Jonathan Reynolds: I can't profess much cricket knowledge. But coming from Greater Manchester, you might recognise our dominance on the footballing side. A lot of interest in that wherever you go.

NDTV: Exactly. And just as we're wrapping up, I mean, I had made that point earlier about the timing. So the polls at least are showing Labour well ahead at this point, but you've still got some months to go. And we know that a week is a long time in politics. How confident are you? Why do you think that, I mean, given that it's been 14 years out of power, why do you think that Labour is ready now?

Jonathan Reynolds: We're not complacent, we can genuinely say, it's not just words. We're genuinely not complacent. But I think first of all, we can say, look at how the Labour Party has changed since 2019. We're a completely different proposition, the credit for that in a big way is down to Keir Starmer for having the courage to do that. And I think people recognise that case. Of course, politics always reflects a little bit on the other side. The fact is that there is a sense that this Conservative government has run out of energy and that there are major problems in public services and ultimately, the economy. And the changes that are required that can't be delivered by the incumbent government, I would say on things like building enough homes in the UK and improving our relationship with the European Union. That is easier for an incoming government to do and of course, things like our ambition on net zero and getting the economic benefits to the UK for that, time very well with the public. But what we will do is not be complacent but will take our role seriously. We will take that responsibility seriously being here in India as part of that.

NDTV: And of course, final question. We've got elections coming up soon. And the Prime Minister just said that the BJP will cross a record 370, NDA 400 plus. So you're engaging with this government as the potential new government. How are you seeing it?

David Lammy: I've been around in politics long enough to know that in a great democracy like this, it is for the Indian people to decide who they want to form the government. It's a huge exercise to see millions of people going to the polls here in India, it's a huge message to the international community at this time. It's something that both our countries share, we treasure that democratic tradition.

David Lammy: I want to see change in the UK. I wait to see what the Indian people decide in the weeks ahead.

NDTV: Thank you both so very much. It was absolutely fantastic to meet well, two men who are amongst the major thought leaders now of the New Labour Party. Thank you very much. David Lammy, and Jonathan Reynolds for being on The Dialogues. Thank you.

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