Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

Labour’s Indian problem

The local elections suggest British Indians are drifting away from the Left

Artillery Row

While Labour celebrated gaining control of Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet, other local results in London underscore the reality that not all is well when it comes to the party’s relationship with Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities.

As well as losing the mayoralty contests in Croydon and Tower Hamlets (to the Conservatives and Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire), Labour — in spectacular fashion — lost control of Harrow. The Tories, gaining eight seats from the beleaguered local Labour Party, are now in control of the north-western London borough for the first time in twelve years. In recent times, Harrow Council has been embroiled in a number of scandals — including the investigation into allegations that staff pocketed £2 million in a scam that saw pavements repaired on only one side of streets. The Metropolitan Police has confirmed it is aware of “allegations of fraud” where payments were received in return for contracts.

Attacking a “culture of poor governance”, the Conservative MP for Harrow East Bob Blackman had previously accused the formerly Labour-controlled council of implementing the second-highest rate of council tax in London and providing some of the worst public services in the capital. There is little doubting that allegations of council corruption and perceptions of gross local mismanagement would have contributed towards the control of Harrow changing hands from Labour to the Tories.

It marks a stunning achievement for the Tories

It marks a stunning achievement for the Tories — gaining from Labour a Remain-voting London borough with a majority-nonwhite population. The result will encourage both major parties to explore shifting voting dynamics within London’s (and indeed the country’s) British-Indian electorate. For some time, I have advanced the view that Britain’s British-Indian population presents much fertile ground for the Tories to broaden their electoral appeal. Despite being internally diverse in terms of migratory background and religious affiliation, much of Britain’s Indian-heritage population would be considered “natural Tories”. They are generally family-oriented, aspirational, entrepreneurial and often financially well-resourced. While the data on ethnic-minority voting patterns is somewhat underdeveloped, there are trends that can be teased out.

In the 2015 General Election, there was a considerable boost in ethnic-minority support for the Tories under former PM David Cameron — with notable increases among British Gujarati Hindu and Punjabi Sikh voters. According to a post-election study by British Future, Labour had fallen behind the Tories within the British Hindu and Sikh communities by a margin of eight per cent (but it is important to acknowledge that the British Sikh sample was particularly small in this study). Perhaps Cameron’s greatest achievement as Tory leader was “decontaminating” the Tory brand — diversifying the parliamentary party under his leadership by using a “priority list” of candidates, stressing the need to create an even-playing field for Britain’s aspirational minorities and championing the UK’s ties with strategically-important Commonwealth partners such as India.

According to a Runnymede Trust report, this progress continued under Theresa May’s leadership, with the Tory vote share increasing within the British-Indian electorate (but decreasing among British voters of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin). The 2019 UK general election was a watershed moment for the fraying relationship between the Labour Party and British-Indian voters. In Harrow East, it was reported that traditional Labour and Liberal Democrat voters of Indian origin — especially those put off by the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn getting the keys to No. 10 — lent their support to Tory incumbent MP Bob Blackman. His majority increased from 1,757 to 8,170 votes. In Hendon — home to Chinmaya Mission UK — Tory MP Matthew Offord was re-elected with an increased majority (1,072 to 4,230 votes). Leicester has the second-largest Indian-born population in Britain. In the last general election, in Leicester West and Leicester East, Labour’s vote share dropped by 11 and 16 percentage points respectively.

A survey of British Indians following the 2019 general election found that British-Indian support for Labour had eroded — a shift driven by Hindu and Christian voters, with a plurality in both religious groups expressing a preference for the Conservatives over Labour. Underlining the degree of religious diversity in the British-Indian electorate, Muslims and Sikhs were less inclined to transfer their electoral support away from Labour and to the Tories. But whether it is Gujarati Hindus in north-west London or Goan Roman Catholics in Swindon, Labour appears to be falling behind the Tories — which will undermine its chances of winning a workable parliamentary majority in the future.

The broader problem for the Left when it comes to a growing number of British-Indian voters — particularly those of Gujarati Hindu origin — is what can be described as “Long Corbyn”. Labour’s fraternisation with Islamist organisations would have alienated British voters of all faiths and ethnicities. In addition to that, the weight and influence of Kashmiri Muslim representatives within the Labour Party’s internal structures adds a geopolitical element to British community tensions.

The ‘British Indian community’ is anything but a monolithic bloc

Under Corbyn, Labour delegates passed a controversial “emergency motion” on Kashmir — claiming that a “major humanitarian crisis” was taking place in the disputed territory and called for “humanitarian and international observers to enter the region”. This would have gone down like a bucket of cold sick with older, foreign-born British voters of Gujarati Hindu origin — especially those who want closer UK-India relations and hold a strong preference for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it comes to mainstream Indian politicians.

Never mind the “South Asian” label becoming redundant in the British socio-political context — the “British Indian community” is anything but a monolithic bloc when it comes to political preferences. It seems that notable sections of the British-Indian electorate are turning their back to Labour and providing the Tories with an electoral boost in London boroughs such as Harrow, the city of Leicester and the surrounding districts, and towns such as Walsall, Swindon and Milton Keynes. Older, foreign-born, home-owning, politically-engaged Gujarati Hindu voters in Britain — left unimpressed by recent cultural developments within the Labour Party — are now some of the most enthusiastic supporters of a Conservative government that understands the strategic value of UK-India relations in the post-Brexit world.

While it may remain the “natural party” for ethno-religious minorities at large, there is much thinking to be done within the modern-day Labour Party — especially when it comes to its relationship with the wider British-Indian electorate.

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