LAHORE: The London air was charged with even more energy than usual, an expected by-product of the UK’s looming snap election in June, according to Ammar Jan, a former doctoral candidate at Cambridge University now working in Lahore. He recalls the days leading up to the election, and his time in the UK, with some nostalgia. Many across the UK — immigrants, students, and those from the lower income bracket — had been poised to be crushed under the renewed Tory iron fist of austerity once Theresa May successfully consolidated her majority.
This had been widely accepted by the British media and deeply feared by Pakistani students across that country. For them, May’s victory did not mean liberation from the chains cast by the European Union (EU), but constituted the stuff of nightmares: higher tuition fees at universities, harder to get visas, name-calling on the streets and the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.
For Aisha Ahmed, a graduate student at Oxford originally from Lahore, the pressing realisation of being the ‘other’ materialised as she began canvassing for the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. “Many people in England don’t know that as a part of the Commonwealth, Pakistanis can vote. So when I began talking about politics and trying to push Corbyn’s case, there were times when they were almost offended because they thought they were being lectured by someone without a vote and a stake in the elections,” Aisha tells Dawn.
Now back in Lahore, she almost laughs it off. While for her, though it was Corbyn’s generally progressive stance that initially spurred her into action, incidents such as these reminded her of the realities that Pakistani students must face.
And, for the hopeful young men and women — nearly all of them students — who gathered at a dimly lit London pub after campaigning one night, the snap election was an opportunity to finally be heard. In the previous elections, only 43 per cent of the young (aged 18-24 years) had shown up at the polls. This time around, the group of young campaigners, animatedly arguing politics and life over the clamour of plates and glasses, were only a few of the 1.30 million youths who would show up to vote a few days later — an unprecedented 72pc of the total youth vote.
Ammar Jan, who used his summer to champion for Corbyn’s cause, says that at its core, it was Corbyn’s consistency and sincerity that pulled millions towards him — especially students tired of understaffed colleges, high tuition fees and the low-quality education that Tory austerity had trapped them with.
Corbyn’s promise of free education and his refusal to “let our community divide” in the wake of political upheaval heralded by Brexit made thousands of undecided voters rally behind him. Voters that had been convinced by the persistent efforts of Corbyn’s door-to-door campaigners — the youth who, following the collapse of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (Ukip) after Brexit — pulled back key voters for Labour in the two weeks before the election.
Despite the fact that they had rallied perhaps the largest youth vote in the UK’s recent history, and formed a fraternity of students and young people around Corbyn that kept pushing till the last minute to bring in more votes, almost everyone believed that come election day, Theresa May and Britain’s conservative right would “decimate” their hopes, Ammar tells Dawn.
Now, half-way across the world, Umar Ali’s voice is loud, and his features animated even against the raucous setting of the café that is, quite like the London pub, alight with political back and forth — though here, the demerits of Tory policies are replaced by debate over Mian Nawaz Sharif’s fate. Umar is a Pakistani national who worked hard to get admission into the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), then paid his own way through it, often through working at multiple jobs simultaneously. SOAS, with its large Labour society, is a Corbyn stronghold located in the progressive hub of Britain, central London. Despite this, he recalls the days after the Paris attacks when crowds parted — silently, cautiously — when he walked down the streets in shalwar kameez. It was incidents such as this that haunted minorities, international students and immigrants and pushed them into the embrace of Labour.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Corbyn repeatedly called on May to debate with him publicly. According to what Umar tells Dawn, May’s refusal and her reclusion during the campaign helped elevate the more accessible Corbyn’s standing in the eyes of a public — especially the youth — that wanted answers. With some glee, Umar recounts how the young canvassed UK’s streets while the Conservative campaign struggled to hire people to fill the gaps in their ranks. In an election where the Conservatives only just scraped by with a majority, the real victors were Corbyn and the thousands of students he champions. A last-ditch effort pushed Labour, with Corbyn in the lead, across the finish line. Every year, there are nearly eight to ten thousand Pakistani students studying in the UK and, with this Corbyn victory, for them the doorway to opportunity has opened just a little bit more.
Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2017