Why are British Indian voters leaving Labor? | Devesh Kapur

Why are British Indian voters leaving Labor?  |  Devesh Kapur

IIn the aftermath of Keir Starmer’s first proper conference speech as Labor leader, questions about the party’s resurrection continue to swirl. National surveys on Westminster’s voting intentions show Labor closing a huge gap with the Conservatives, but it is unclear whether this is indicative of a structural shift in political preferences or simply the result of a scandal-driven news cycle fueling a negative sentiment towards the government.

While doubts persist as to whether Starmer has done enough to reconnect with the party’s former white working-class base, the party’s problems extend beyond the alienation of this critical demographic. A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that British Indians, who, along with most other ethnic minorities, have long been Central Labor voters, are defecting in considerable numbers.

A change in the voting patterns of the British Indian diaspora would be significant. Six decades ago, India was the third most common country of birth for people born outside the UK; in 2011, it had become the more common. The Indian diaspora is young, fast-growing, relatively well-educated, and one of the highest-income ethnic groups in Britain. Despite the growing prominence of British Indians, there have been few studies on their political preferences. To better understand your partisan leanings, in partnership with YouGov we have conducted a new nationally representative survey out of nearly 800 British Indian eligible voters.

We have found that while British Indians continue to show a preference for Labor, the party’s historical advantage has eroded. In 2010, a poll identified British Indians’ support for Labor at 61%, while 24% supported the Conservatives. Fast forward to today, and our survey suggests that only four in 10 British Indians identify with the Labor Party, while three in 10 support the Conservatives and about one in 10 identifies with other parties.

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If early elections were held tomorrow, British Indians would be major swing voters. Among the diaspora, Labor would enjoy a 10-point lead over the Conservatives in a hypothetical general election, but a significant minority (15%) remains undecided.

While the Conservatives have much to celebrate, Labor’s decline has not automatically translated into gains for the Conservatives. In fact, the evidence from British Elections Study (BES) suggests that British Indians’ support for the Conservatives has stalled. Rather than joining the conservatives, a growing proportion of respondents support other parties or identify as “undecided.” Yet Labor losses among the Indian diaspora are real and unique among minority communities in South Asia: BES data does not suggest a corresponding decline in Bangladesh or Pakistan’s support for Labor.

Of course, the British Indian community is no more monolith than any other. Two demographic factors, age and religion, are especially crucial to understanding your party preferences. The youngest British Indians (aged 18-29) are the strongest supporters of Labor, preferring it to the Conservatives by a 54% to 21% margin. However, among people age 50 and over, Labor’s lead is just two points (37% vs. 35%). Furthermore, the views of British Indians are highly polarized on religious grounds. Most Muslim and Sikh respondents would vote for Labor in an early election, but among Christians and Hindus, the Conservatives would be the most popular party. Given the relative demographic weight of Hindus, Labor’s problem with British Indians is largely due to the flight of Hindu voters from its ranks.

How is this important change in the political behavior of British India understood? At least three main drivers deserve mention: the economy, the perception of the party’s “brands” and attitudes towards India.

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British Indians, like the rest of the country, are concerned about the economy and health. While disappointed in the record of the Boris Johnson administration, many are also critical of labor policies. In fact, the most common reason why British Indians do not identify with the Labor Party is the perception that it is too influenced by socialism.

While respondents do not necessarily perceive a clear partisan bias in the overall representation of British Indian interests, religion again serves as a dividing line. Four in 10 Hindus report that the Conservative party is “closer” to British Indians; Similar proportions of Sikhs and Muslims say the same about Labor. In turn, most respondents easily identify Labor as the closest to other large minorities in South Asia, who are also predominantly Muslim.

It is also likely that the positions of the main parties on India are shaping partisan attitudes. Foreign policy is not an electoral priority for British Indians, and few report that UK-India ties or other defense and security issues are the main influences on the vote. However, foreign policy positions can affect the overall brand of a party. Following the decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to abruptly end Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy in 2019, the Labor Party passed an emergency motion requesting international observers in the state. The decision divided the British Indians, especially the Hindus. It is not a coincidence that the British Hindus hold the most unfavorable views of Pakistan, another factor that could unite them with conservatives, who are less reliant on votes from the Pakistani diaspora.

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Looking ahead, two competing structural trends will determine how the community leans: generational change and immigration.

Given the leftward tilt of young British Indians, as their the ranks increase, Labor’s weakening position could improve again. Promoting leadership that resonates with British Indians would help, particularly given the community’s sad views on Boris Johnson. However, if there is a waiting prime minister willing to attract British Indian voters, our poll suggests that it is Chancellor Rishi Sunak, not Keir Starmer.

On the other hand, immigration can adversely affect Labor’s position. Many newcomers from India and recently naturalized citizens seem to lean toward conservatives. In this context, India’s polarized political environment, driven by the rising tide of Hindu nationalism from the BJP, could have impacts beyond the country’s borders, bringing the UK and India together in the most unexpected way.

  • This article was co-authored by Devesh Kapur, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Caroline Duckworth and Milan Vaishnav, who work in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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