Can South Asians Swing Britain’s Elections?

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The South Asian demographic in the UK is millions-strong. Any election has to account for their vote.

The Leicester Curry Awards have just announced their first place winner. From over 200 nominations, five finalists were settled on – and Britain’s most ethnically diverse city was left to vote on the best curry in town.

It was a harmless democratic exercise – because there is no racial preference to liking one curry over another. The rhetoric when it comes to national elections, however, is different.

The Remain vote won by a little over two percent of the vote in Leicester, amidst the lowest voter turnout in Leicestershire. It’s a winning percentage not far from the national average – where Leave votes had a three percentage point lead. In Leicester, where Indians alone constitute up to 28 percent of the population – the vote could have swung either way depending on how the Asian constituency felt.

Outside of Leicester, the wind blew a different direction.

After the smoke settled on Brexit, an unexpected demographic turned out to have voted Leave. The ‘British-Asian community’, numbering around three million, had largely voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union.

There are no hard statistics for how certain demographics voted, but trends are observable based on how certain group-heavy constituencies voted. The BBC accessed constituency polling data that suggests that nationwide – ‘Asians’ had voted to leave. According to VICE, almost all constituencies with ‘British-Asian’ populations in the double digits voted to leave – barring Leicester. And interviews conducted by Vice, The London School of Economics and the Financial Times all suggest that there are many ‘Asians’ in the UK whose interests aligned with the Leave campaign.

The idea that Brexit was a racist vote and that racial minorities would vote against it isn’t clearly applying. For many South Asians, the European Union represented discrimination. South Asian visa applicants spend hundreds of pounds, navigating ever-increasing bureaucratic red tape and years of applications just to be able to live and work in the UK. But, migrants from Europe can just hop on a bus. Even for third generations of British-Asians, who may not know the pain of a prolonged visa application, it can sting.

Voting in Britain isn’t divided into such clear-cut lines. Factors like educational qualification, religion and socioeconomic status all play a part. The Indian Worker’s Association, for example, voted Leave.

It calls for a reassessment of the issues at stake. For Britain is approaching another election in June. And when it comes to national politics – the goalposts shift again.

The Conservatives fared poorly in the 2010 general election – capturing only 16 percent of minority ethnic votes. In 2015, they had reversed this – cruising to victory with over a million Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) votes. Labour still had the larger share, but it was clear that the gap was closing.

Theresa May’s snap general election in June will rest on many factors – but pulling more South Asian voters inwards will be a crucial one. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Mrs. May did after announcing the election was to attend a Baisakhi reception with the Sikh community.

But it’s not just Indians that Labour and Conservatives will have to woo. British Pakistanis numbered 1.26 million in 2011 – and this doesn’t include the numbers working in the United Kingdom. For, thanks to a colonial legacy, citizens of Commonwealth nations residing in the UK can vote in their elections. This includes students, and workers yet to receive citizenship – a total voter base of one million. On this count, Pakistani workers in the UK number at 1.7 million according to the Tribune.

For the largely Muslim community, Labour seems a likelier option – especially with British Pakistanis like Sadiq Khan serving in high positions like Mayor of London. Unlike the Indian community, whose observable concerns can be the loss of jobs to newer immigrants, British Pakistanis also have to worry about the state’s approach to Islam. It doesn’t help that May was voted the worst ‘Islamophobe of the Year’ by the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

Labour doesn’t have it easy either – they’ve been consistently losing their share of ethnic minority votes. While Indians have shown the largest propensity to shift to voting for the conservatives, only up to four percent of British Pakistanis felt the same. Once again, Indians and Pakistanis find themselves on opposing sides of an issue.

The coming election’s outcome will depend heavily on how Asians in the UK decide to vote. The Leave campaign won Brexit by only 1.2 million votes. For perhaps not the first time, South Asians hold the key to the future of Britain.

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