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Labour candidate shocked by ‘divisive’ Tory letter

By Ben WrightPolitical correspondent • Becky MortonPolitical reporter

Sonia Kumar Sonia Kumar Sonia Kumar

Sonia Kumar is an NHS physiotherapist

A Labour election candidate has told the BBC she is “disappointed and shocked” by a “divisive” letter sent to British Pakistani voters by her Conservative opponent.

In a letter addressed to “the British Pakistani/Kasmiri community in Dudley”, Marco Longhi asked: “Will it be me, or Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate Sonia KUMAR?”, underlining his rival’s name.

Critics claimed this was to point out Ms Kumar’s British Indian background in the hope of persuading British Pakistani Muslims not to vote for her. Kumar is a traditional Indian name, used predominantly by members of the Hindu community but also by some Sikhs.

Mr Longhi, who is standing to be MP for Dudley, said he was “not trying to stoke division”.

But Sonia Kumar, who is Sikh, said that it was “unacceptable” to “imply that she would not stand up for all of [her] constituents because of [her] religion and heritage”.

“I work in our NHS as a physiotherapist, helping all the people of Dudley no matter what their background is,” she said.

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds called the letter “clearly inappropriate, divisive, dog whistle politics”.

“There is no place for such behaviour anywhere in our political system. Rishi Sunak needs to take action immediately. If he fails to do so, it will show his promise of professionalism, and accountability to be a hollow sham,” she said.

Crossbench peer Lord Austin, who was the Labour MP for Dudley North from 2005 to 2019, said he had worked hard to fight racism and sectarian politics and to bring local people together.

“The people of Dudley are much better than this and I hope they reject this candidate and his nasty divisive politics.”

Rajesh Agrawal, Labour’s candidate for Leicester East, said the letter was a “shameful” attempt to divide the area and was “offensive” to both Muslims and Hindus communities.

 Richard Townshend/UK Parliament Marco Longhi Richard Townshend/UK Parliament

In the letter, Mr Longhi, who previously represented Dudley North, said he had been “at the forefront of speaking against the Indian government atrocities towards the people of Kashmir” and the re-election of Indian PM Narendra Modi would mean “even tougher times for the people of Kashmir”.

He wrote: “Should you vote for me, I make a pledge to you that I will raise my voice for Kashmir in Parliament even more and will be at the forefront of standing up for Kashmiris in Parliament.”

The Himalayan region of Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan for over eight decades. Both countries claim the Muslim-majority territory in full, but control it in part.

The Indian army has been fighting a separatist insurgency in the region for over three decades, which has claimed thousands of lives. India blames Pakistan for fomenting violence in the region, a charge its neighbour denies.

Locals in Kashmir have long accused security forces of excesses, including beatings and torture, which Indian authorities routinely reject.

Mr Longhi told the BBC many people in the community had told him they were “very concerned about what’s happening in Kashmir”.

Asked if he had been divisive by highlighting Ms Kumar’s surname, Mr Longhi said: “I don’t know what her ethnicity or religious background is. I am not trying to stoke division.

“I will always stand up for abuses of human rights wherever they take place,” he added.

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The letter was posted on X by Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, which focuses on integration, migration, identity and race.

Sharing the letter, he said that in the past different parties had made pitches to voters of one ethnicity or faith but “it should not happen”.

“In my view any of the major parties should suspend a candidate for doing this. Sectarian community pitches are wrong,” he wrote.

“This particular example is further exacerbated by this conscious use of prejudice against the candidate of a rival party.”

The Conservative Party has been approached for comment.

You can find a full list of candidates for the Dudley constituency here.

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