Wooing the Indian vote – The Hindu


Britain’s snap general election, for June 8, is particularly interesting on a number of counts: being the first poll since the referendum on Brexit, and one called with less than two months’ notice. It is also likely to be an important test of Britain’s South Asian and Indian community in particular, and how loyal they will remain to the Labour party. Britain’s Indian community has traditionally voted Labour, with only a slight shift happening overt the decades, spurred by loosening community ties (younger people are now less likely to be bound by the loyalties that their older family members may adhere to) as well as efforts by the Conservatives and other political parties to reach out to them. Parties across the political spectrum have also sought to diversify their candidates: in the forthcoming election, the Conservatives have 13 candidates of Indian origin, and Labour is fielding 14.

Labour’s vote bank

Though some have suggested a significant shift to the Conservatives at the last election, researchers have warned that this should not be overestimated, even within Britain’s Hindu community, within which the biggest shift happened. “I don’t think there has been a sharp move, even within the Hindu community; there has been no revolution or fundamental realignment, which would leave us to expect that there is not going to be a sudden big change in how Indians in the U.K. vote,” says Nicole Martin, a senior policy research officer at Essex University who conducted research in the run-up to the 2015 general election, that put Indian support for Labour at 65%, against 27% for the Conservatives and 3% for the Liberal Democrats. (For the Pakistani community the figures were 80%, 8% and 5%, respectively, and for the Bangladeshi community they were 82%, 10% and 1%, respectively).

Like most ethnic minority groups Indians voted strongly in favour of remaining within the European Union (EU) — 59% of those of Indian origin voted to remain, against 48% of the population as a whole. But during the election campaign it’s unclear to what extent parties’ positions on this issue will impact the decision of voters at the ballot box.

While the Conservatives have focused on their re-election as the best chance for Brexit negotiations, Labour has pledged to rewrite Britain’s approach to Brexit, to include guaranteeing the rights of those EU nationals already in the country, and to protect working rights and environmental standards. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party that would work to ensure Britain avoided a “hard Brexit” and retained access to the single market.

Potentially of more interest and significance to the Indian community will be the inclusion of India-relevant issues in the parties’ election manifestos, to the greatest extent to date.

The Labour party has pledged a further review into Britain’s involvement in Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984.

This has been welcomed by Sikh community groups, including the Sikh Federation, which last year said it had uncovered a document that referred to the possible involvement of a Special Air Services unit of the British Army. However, despite Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s strong past support for the introduction of legislation to outlaw caste discrimination, the manifesto does not include mention of this issue.

The Liberal Democrats have pledged to outlaw caste discrimination, in a move that has been warmly welcomed by Dalit organisations and others who have been championing the introduction of legislation against caste discrimination. However, parties’ positioning on the issue could also be used by those within the Indian community who have vocally campaigned against the introduction of legislation. In 2015, the National Council of Hindu Temples urged voters to support the Conservatives because at the time they opposed the introduction of legislation, warning that for Indian communities to vote for the Labour party would be like “turkeys voting for Christmas”. (The government is currently running a consultation on the issue but critics argue that it is biased against the introduction of legislation, and is being used to brush the issue under the carpet.)

Ms. Martin also pointed to the emphasis placed on issues of race and equality more widely across the manifestos, noting the Conservatives’ pledge to tackle issues such as the racial disparity across public services, enforce equality laws to ensure that services weren’t denied on the basis of ethnicity, religion or gender, and also require the biggest companies to publish information on the pay gap for people of different ethnic groups.

The class distinction

However, what may disturb many South Asian voters is the party’s tough line on immigration: alongside doubling the amount that firms must pay to hire non-EU workers, the Conservatives have committed to raising the earning threshold for those who wish to bring in spouses from outside the EU, already a major issue for many within the Indian community who have argued the high threshold has left families divided. Labour by contrast has pledged to treat family differently to economic migration and will remove the threshold altogether. Still, some within the Indian community have been critical of Labour under Mr. Corbyn. Manoj Ladwa, a former campaign adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who once headed an organisation for Indians supporting the Labour party, has spoken publicly of his reservations about its new leadership, describing Mr. Corbyn as “out of sync” with British Indians.

However, Mr. Corbyn has inspired others such as members of the Indian Workers Association (IWA), which will be urging its members to vote for the Labour party for the first time. “Finally, Labour has policies that we can relate to as Indian workers, where they have been talking about taking control of industries, giving control back to workers, looking after ordinary working people,” says Harsev Bains of the IWA.

If the polls are to be believed, the Conservatives are on for a comfortable victory. A recent poll for The Guardian showed that the Conservatives’ lead had fallen from 20 to 14 percentage points, which would still put them ahead of their performance in 2015. The big question is whether this shift will be matched within the Indian community.

“This election will be a test of the Conservatives,” says Ms. Martin. “They are reaching out to some within the Indian community with some policies but others will hit minority groups. If they fail to make inroads in this election, I think we can stop asking the question about if they are going to make a big breakthrough any time soon.”

vidya.ram@thehindu.co.in

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