There has been a clear fissure in the traditional Labour preference among all subcontinental ethnicities with Indians warming up to the Conservatives in sizeable droves
Recently, the UK elected 650 members to the House of Commons on December 12 for the third time since 2015 even though Governments over there are elected for a five-year tenure. The history of the British Raj (1858-1947) and the subsequent imprint, relationship and presence of subcontinental diaspora in the UK have made these elections relevant for the diaspora community and the Indian subcontinent as well. Accounting for nearly five per cent of the approximately 68 million population, subcontinental ethnicities have a significant stake and impact in the impending Government formation in the UK. Indian diaspora is the largest foreign ethnicity in Britain, comprising 2.3 per cent of the total population. This is followed closely by Pakistan with 1.9 per cent and Bangladesh at 0.7 per cent. Subcontinental ethnicities contribute about 25-30 seats to the Parliament.
Till recently, subcontinental ethnicities have had an overarching bias towards the Labour Party, which accounted for nearly two-third of the subcontinental parliamentarians. However, there has been a clear fissure in the traditional Labour preference among all subcontinental ethnicities with Indians warming up to the Conservatives in sizeable droves. After the post of the Prime Minister, the number two and three positions of the Chancellor of Exchequer and the Home Secretary respectively were held by subcontinental ethnicities in the previous Conservative Government. Much earlier, four members of the Indian ethnicity were in the Conservative Theresa May’s Cabinet. Subsequently, there were three (out of the 32 member Cabinet) in the previous Conservative Boris Johnson Government.
This is symptomatic of a shift in ethnicity, acceptance and wooing of the Indian sensibilities within the Conservative ranks. The all-important post of Home Secretary was entrusted to Preeti Patel, who held crucial responsibilities such as national security, terrorism and immigration issues. Whereas Alok Sharma was the International Development Secretary and Rishi Sunak (son-in-law of Infosys co-founder, NR Narayana Murthy) became the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In the latest “People’s Cabinet” of Boris Johnson, all three have retained their important positions.
A drift from the earlier Labour fixation had resulted in the Conservatives banking on one million ethnic votes for the first time in the 2015 national elections. However, by the 2017 national elections, post-election surveys showed that the Conservatives had probably raced ahead of the Labour in attracting Indian ethnicities. Data from an ethno-religious perspective confirmed a 49 per cent preference for Conservatives by the Hindu and Sikh communities as opposed to just 41 per cent for the Labour.
A change in global geopolitics, too, has evolved India’s narrative and perceptions have made it more amiable towards “traditionalist” Western parties. Take for example, the Conservatives in the UK or the Republicans in the US as opposed to “internationalist” parties like the Labour or the Democrats. The hard Left moorings of the Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn had the sort of “revolutionary” vocabulary that was anachronistic with agenda, including renationalisation, debating class wars and scrapping nuclear deterrents among others. This undid the sort of progressive direction set by the “New Labour” liberality of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who had sought a balance between capitalism and socialism. This Labour extremism led to serious accusations of harbouring anti-Semitic sentiments and concerns prevailed over Corbyn’s “softness” on security concerns, including his description of the operation to take out Osama bin Laden as “yet another tragedy.”
From an Indian perspective, Corbyn’s positions, activism and actions have been a matter of concern with him signing multiple motions, expressing concerns on the happenings in India. The Labour Party had interfered in the Indian affairs and passed a party resolution that read, “Crucially, it calls on the Labour Party, the Government in waiting, to clearly and vocally support the Kashmiri people’s right to self determination and for international observers to be sent to the region immediately. The resolution also calls for an intervention of the party at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).” The implied intent and reference to the so-called “self determination” was clearly political overreach and loaded.
Expectedly, the Indian Government expressed its deep displeasure. The Indian High Commission withdrew its annual courtesy of inviting the UK’s Opposition leadership for Independence Day celebrations. The Chair of the Labour Party, Ian Lavery, was left to do the damage control and renege from the earlier stand adopted by Corbyn but the damage was done and was in the coming for some time.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson dialled up his charm offensive towards the Indian diaspora. He made sure that he alluded to the reassuring future of the Indian doctors in the much-discussed, National Health Scheme (NHS). The gaffe-prone Johnson had half heartedly and conveniently referred to himself as the “son-in-law” of India, as the mother of his second wife was of Sikh faith. Johnson’s patent bluster had a decidedly ethno religious context and target that militated more in the face of ethnic Pakistanis in the UK. The ongoing public and very personal slugfest with his successor, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, (of Pakistani ethnicity) had not endeared him to the British Pakistanis either. In a deeply hyphenated framework of India-Pakistan divide, this pushed the Indian ethnicity even more towards the Conservatives and the Pakistani ethnicity towards the Labour Party.
Given that the Conservatives romped home with a thumping 80 member majority over Labour, this augurs well for the Indian diaspora. Many Indian community groups had willingly ousted even Indian-origin Labour parliamentarians as none of them stood up in favour of India in the House of Commons to denounce the violent protests in front of India House.
The Indian ethnicity has successfully swung votes in approximately 50 constituencies and oddly enough, it seems to be the pro-monarchy “Tories” who have caught the fancy and preference of the Indian diaspora in the latest elections. While the Conservative Party and Johnson in particular have a lot to account for in the past and in the future with Brexit uncertainty looming large, Labour has shot itself in the foot. Until the option of some sort of a progressive “New Labour” surfaces, the Indian ethnicity will continue to support the Conservatives.