First-generation British Indians often related more to the Labour Party than the Conservative Party. Will a change in the mindset of the second and third generation British Indians affect the voting pattern and force a new coalition?
In 1885, British Indian politician Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree was elected to office as the first Conservative Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green. Sir Bhownagree was re-elected in 1900. Despite such an early start, British Indian participation in elected political office had been minimal until recently. The tide is clearly turning. Well educated, dynamic and highly professional second and third generation British Indians are increasingly participating in public life demonstrating their integration within modern, multi-cultural Britain. Currently, UK parliament has 25 Peers of Indian-origin while in excess of 180 Councillors of Indian origin have been elected to office. After decades of quiet, back room existence, the hard-working and extremely successful Indian community is increasing its visibility in public life.
The UK has a population of 64 million of which the nearly 2 million Indian Diaspora form a decisive and critical vote-bank. Historically Indians living in the UK have favoured the Labour party viewing Conservatives as the ‘Nasty party’ typified by white, male politicians from privileged backgrounds with elite education at schools like Eton, Harrow, St Pauls followed by Oxbridge. Immigrant Indians in the past, often semi-literate or illiterate and at the lower end of the socio-economic strata, had very little in common with Conservative politicians who were deemed to be imperialist and anti-immigration. In contrast, Labour because of its strong support for the Unions was seen as a softer party for immigrants. Till recently, Labour would get the vast majority (90%) of the Indian vote. Times however are changing rapidly.
With increasing education and affluence, the first decade of the new century has seen a definitive shift in allegiance and attitude. The 2010 General Elections for the first time publicly exhibited the natural overlap between core Conservative and Indian values. Four Conservative British Indian politicians were elected to Parliament with two of them being re-elected. The new generation of high achieving British Indians is moving away from the allegiance and affiliation of their parents’ generation and willing to embrace Conservative values.
To enhance the growing support base, Britain’s Conservative Party has innovatively launched a campaign song in Hindi to woo Indian-origin voters in the run up to the May 7 General Elections. The song ‘Neela Hai Aasma (Blue Sky)’ was launched on 24th April 2015 with ‘neela’ referring to the symbolic blue colour of the party. The catchy tune set to Indian beats encourages the British Indian community to join hands with the British PM in taking the UK forward. The Bollywood-style campaign song is reflective of the Indian tradition of election propaganda, which often relies on popular film beats to praise key candidates. Over the last five years, the Prime Minister has consistently engaged with the British Indian community across a series of high profile political, business, social, religious and cultural events and a video accompanying the song presents a snapshot of some of the key highlights. Recently, David Cameron touted that in keeping with history, the Conservative Party would give the country Britain’s first ethnic minority Prime Minister within twenty years just as the Conservatives had given UK the first Jewish Prime Minister (Disraeli in 1870s) and the first lady Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher in 1970s).
However, days before the imminent 7 May 2015 General Elections, a sweep evaluation of British electoral dynamics raises questions about the impact of economics on electoral politics in one of the world’s most empowered democracies. It is beyond dispute that Prime Minister Cameron has immeasurably recast the UK’s economic indices in recent years and impacted people across the board. When Britain voted in the 2010 General Election five years ago, Labour had ruled Britain for the last 13 years. The economy was reeling under the impact of the global financial crisis, deficits and unemployment rates were high, and the road ahead seemed rocky. Five years of Conservative-led coalition government later, the deficit has been cut in half, two million people are back to work and inflation is low while the economy has returned to healthy growth levels. According to a recent BBC survey, Britain currently “sustains an employment rate of 73.4 per cent, highest since 1971”.
However, despite assiduous campaigns, the ruling Conservatives are still struggling for a credible connect to the people. Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband counters that the gains of the past five years have been concentrated at the top and the rich have got away without paying their share even as the poor and middle class suffer from painful cuts in government services. Miliband pointed to record numbers relying on food bank assistance to support his claim that Cameron’s leadership has failed. Given high levels of disenchantment with electoral politics and years of austerity pain, Miliband finds a receptive audience despite the obvious economic recovery achieved by Cameron.
The contest is highly unpredictable currently with Labour and Conservatives running neck and neck. Neither party is expected to win a majority in the 650 seat Parliament. In the 2010 General election 5 years ago, no party had won a clear majority although the circumstances were different. The centrist Liberal Democrats won enough seats to be able to negotiate power sharing with the Conservatives resulting in a durable 5 year Conservative led coalition government. This time around, support for the Liberal Democrats has cratered, and neither the math nor politics favours a simple two-party coalition.
The key to who will rule the UK for the next five years, will be in the hands of a host of smaller political forces with specific agendas/interests, including Liberal Democrats, Democratic Unionist Party, Scottish National Party and UK Independence Party. Permutations of three or more parties are being creatively discussed, although it would inevitably make for strange bedfellows given the wide variance in beliefs. It is also believed that post 7 May 2015, one party could try to form a minority government with a wing and a prayer that the other parties do not band together to bring the edifice down.
The uncertainty of poll results accentuates overall political tensions in a democracy. Following election results, a pathway of convenience and compromise is often necessitated and individual political manifestos become irrelevant. National interest must be paramount. The UK (and others with a stake in the UK) hope all political parties remember this post 7 May 2015.