Why British Labour Is Losing Indian Voters

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Why you should care

Because Britain's largest ethnic minority could have a huge impact on Brexit and beyond.

There was a time when the British Indian vote was a sure thing for the Labour Party. But givens are rare in the United Kingdom, ever since Brexit shook the status quo to its core. And as the nation prepares for a pivotal election Dec. 12, one of its key demographic groups — Indians and Britons of Indian descent, the U.K.’s largest ethnic minority at 1.5 million people — is up for grabs.

That is the takeaway from a landmark poll solely targeting British Indian voters — the first such poll, according to its funders, London-based media group India Inc. and Washington-based data analytics firm 0ptimus. Conducted Nov. 13-18, the survey found that …

The Labour Party’s support has declined by about 12 percentage points among British Indians since the 2017 general election.

In the online survey of 800 British Indians conducted in partnership with YouGov, nearly 34 percent said they would vote Labour while just over 24 percent backed the Conservative Party. That was a shift from two years ago, when roughly 46 percent of those same survey respondents said they backed Labour and 28 percent backed the Conservatives. While a majority of British Indians hold an unfavorable opinion of both Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the poll found that more believe U.K.-Indian relations would suffer under Corbyn. The big winner? The Liberal Democrats, who saw their support jump 10 percentage points among British Indians, to 18 percent.

The results come at a time when Labour has drawn fire from some voters of Indian origin, after passing an emergency motion against India’s decision to scrap Kashmir’s partial autonomy at the party convention in September. The party walked that position back in November amid backlash, but it may have further pushed Indian nationalists and religious voters away regardless. Earlier this month, it was revealed that British allies of Indian Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP party were campaigning for Conservatives in 48 close parliamentary races, partially citing the Kashmir situation for their electioneering efforts.

Whether or not those efforts will be successful, though, is debatable. While Indian voters may be shifting from Labour broadly, many of the districts that Conservatives are targeting hold only a small proportion of Indian voters, as Runnymede Trust director Omar Khan pointed out in a recent Guardian piece. The move on Kashmir — driven largely by Modi and a Hindu nationalist movement emerging in an India where nearly 80 percent of citizens are Hindu — may also hold less sway for British Indians, of whom only about 44 percent identify as Hindu. “My theory is that it’s not that they don’t have an opinion, but you really don’t care as much because you’re living in the U.K.,” says Scott Tranter, co-founder of 0ptimus. “It’s like asking American expats living in Aruba for 30 years what they think about the border wall.”

So it’s not just the situation in Kashmir contributing to a possible Indian shift to the Conservatives, argues Oxford University professor Faisal Devji. “Increased wealth and political influence of the diaspora has led to its shift rightward,” Devji says. He points to the early ’90s when India, facing economic crises, began more fervently reaching out to its diaspora, the largest in the world by population.

Modi has continued to deepen those ties — not just in the U.K. but also in the United States, as when he visited Houston in September and attracted some 50,000 Indian American spectators. “In effect, the prime minister wished for Trump’s reelection,” Devji notes, and even though the Indian foreign secretary later tried to soften Modi’s seeming endorsement, the attempt to influence the Indian American vote in 2020 didn’t go unnoticed.

The poll “demonstrates that British Indians can no longer be treated as a block vote that can be taken for granted by any party,” says Manoj Ladwa, founder and CEO of the India Inc. Group. And with polling showing a tight race among Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, even a fraction of British Indian voters switching sides could make all the difference.

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