British Indians: The new key swing voters?

British Indians: The new key swing voters?

British Indians could be important new swing voters, according to a new survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in partnership with YouGov.

Their demographic weight (the number of Indian origin Britons) is notable, as is their political influence. This means a big shift in British politics as both Labour and Conservatives start to woo the votes of this prominent community, which had hitherto been low profile politically. It is well-known that historically British Indians were loyal voters of the Labour Party, however recently there is growing evidence of a split in voting intentions. Forty per cent of British Indians support Labour, while 30 per cent support the Conservatives. There appears to be a split along religious lines with British Hindus and Christians most likely to view the Conservatives favorably, while Sikh and Muslim voters mostly remain steadfastly loyal to Labour.

There is a strong possibility that changes in both parties’ foreign policies are fueling this change, as some Hindu swing voters may perceive Labour as being somewhat anti-India. One example of this is the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution by the Indian government, thereby fully integrating the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir (and bifurcating it) within the Indian Union. A number of backbench Labour MPs cast this change as a human rights issue, and the Labour Party, in a motion, urged the Modi government to reconsider the move. Some British Sikh voters, opposed to Indian PM Narendra Modi’s farm reforms (which have now been reversed), may not take too kindly to Conservative ties with Modi either, accentuating the trend of lower levels of Sikh support for the Conservatives, despite the community’s affluence.

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Furthermore, there is a perception that the Labour Party is very close to the British Pakistani community, according to the survey. While that is not in and of itself (and should not be) an issue, it could well generate a belief that the Labour Party is more sensitive to Pakistani interests than Indian ones, driven by the desire to keep receiving the votes of Pakistani origin Britons.

A recent by-election in the UK constituency of Batley and Spen (which has a big Pakistani population) saw Labour publish a campaign leaflet that was widely seen as anti-Modi. However, the extent of British political parties’ desire to associate themselves with Pakistan is debatable in the long run, given that country’s toxic association with religious extremism, especially in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. In any case a combination of these factors – Article 370 and Labour’s dependence on Pakistani votes in the Midland region – may have motivated a BJP affiliated group to campaign for the Conservatives in key swing seats in the 2019 general election, which the Conservatives won by a landslide.

The survey places UK-India relations at a low priority, with only 3 per cent of Indians considering it a significant issue at the moment. However, important caveats apply. The Carnegie survey was conducted in the middle of a pandemic, which meant foreign relations, even with India, would’ve taken a backseat to more pressing local issues such as the economy. There is support among both Labour and Conservative supporters of Indian origin for a free trade agreement with India, highlighting that strong economic ties with India are likely to be popular amongst voters generally. That should incentivise accelerated trade negotiations with India, which is being done in any case in the aftermath of both Brexit and the pandemic.

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Overall, the Labour Party retains a narrow advantage over the Conservatives with regard to British Indians, but the steady narrowing of a voter base that Labour once took for granted shows how traditional voter behaviours are changing. The rise of British Indian swing voters shows how performance and delivery on critical local issues such as the economy and immigration take precedence over foreign policy for the community.

Historically, until now, the Labour Party has been immigration friendly while the Conservatives have been very reserved in their policies. This dividing line was sharply visible during and after the Brexit referendum. This historical hostility to immigration may be at the heart of the preference for Labour among a plurality of British Indian voters, who might (just) be more comfortable with a party that viewed immigrants favourably.

However, that Labour plurality is only in the form of a 10 per cent lead. Many Indian origin immigrants now tend to view Conservatives more favourably, and with Indian origin MPs being more robustly represented by the Conservatives, it is possible that the trend could reverse, giving the Tories the edge. It is not easy to predict the future, but one thing is for certain. The votes of British Indians are no longer set in stone. They are very much up for grabs, for the party that appeals to the economic needs and foreign policy choices that they have.

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The Conservatives appear to be actively trying harder to win the votes of British Indians, as evidenced by a litany of events, from David Cameron’s appearance at Wembley with Indian PM Narendra Modi in November 2015, to Boris Johnson’s repeated emphasis on strong ties with India today. Labour now needs to work harder to regain the trust of British Indians.

Time will tell which way British Indian voters swing, reshaping the British electoral landscape.

Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.

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