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24 May 2022

How Labour lost the Indian vote

Attacking Rishi Sunak’s elitist background goes down badly with affluent, ambitious, nostalgic Hindus.

By Kavya Kaushik

How could Labour, a party that won big elsewhere in London and brands itself a haven of diversity and a champion of immigrants, lose Harrow council in the local elections on 5 May? The answer lies in Labour’s changing relationship with London’s Indian community, which it seems its leaders have failed to grasp and which has serious implications for the party’s future.

To understand, we must go back to Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972. This sent shockwaves across East Africa, as communities not just in Uganda but in Kenya and Tanzania faced racism and uncertainty. Traumatised by overnight displacement, Asians from East Africa chose to stick together across north-west London and Leicester. Harrow took 1,500 refugees from Uganda alone. They built infrastructure: temples, Bollywood cinemas and Kenyan-Gujarati street food cafés. The ready-made community appealed to working-class Indians looking for a better life, and subsequent 20th century immigration policies allowed them to chase the Harrow Asian dream.

That aspiration was reflected in political voting patterns. Voting Conservative was perceived as a status symbol within the south Asian community, while those who had recently moved here found solidarity within the Labour Party. When I was a prospective parliamentary candidate in nearby Southall in 2015 (the west London equivalent of Harrow), a constituent informed me: “You vote Labour in Southall, but then you make money, move to Isleworth and buy a Mercedes. You vote Tory once you’ve made it, Labour until you get there.”

Immigration policy has changed since the early 2010s. Before then, the kind of Indian migrating here would have been an entrepreneurial shopkeeper born and raised in Nairobi. His wife (MA Hons, Accountancy) worked on minimum wage at the local primary school. Aspirations of social mobility lay on the shoulders of their children, who were brought up to become doctors in the hope of generational wealth trickling upwards as they aged. Today, prospective immigrants need far higher salaries to enter the UK and sponsorship requirements favour those with skills Britain lacks, often in tech. The UK now imports Indian managers, not workers. These immigrants no longer need the working-class solidarity Labour provided to previous generations. By now the aspiring 1970s shopkeeper has probably retired and moved to Isleworth (or the Harrow equivalent, Pinner), with a driveway large enough for his Mercedes.

What all this means is that new Indian immigrants have more in common with Rishi Sunak than with the 1970s East Africans. Born to a wealthy, upper-caste Hindu family, this immigrant is likely to have attended one of India’s most prestigious private schools, aspiring to attend an Ivy League university. They were raised by domestic help who cooked and cleaned for them.

Sunak embodies the Indian upper middle class. He understands the new wealthy India. Hell, he’s a card-carrying member of the new wealthy India: the Stanford educated son-in-law of one of the biggest Indian tech families, born to middle-class Indian doctors. This means that when Labour draws attention to Sunak’s elitist background, it makes him more appealing to both Indian demographics. He achieved the social mobility the 20th-century immigrants hoped for for their children, and he is a member of the family that encapsulates the new elite India. Sunak sends a message: work hard and you too can be second in command of the country and heir to a fortune. He is the dual immigrant dream — part of the ruling class both here and back home.

There are other factors pushing the Indian voters of today away from Labour, namely fervent pride at India’s economic growth and a keen preference for Indian current affairs over British. New India has new politics, favouring Hindu nationalism and social conservatism over progressive politics and secularism. A cocktail of patriotic pride and nostalgia for the motherland has united Hindu voters in support of the regime of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, and the nationalism of him and his party, the BJP. Streaming and cable TV have placed radical Hindu commentators in Harrow living rooms, evangelising about the horrors of Pakistan in digestible chunks for the diaspora.

Against this backdrop, the diversity on display in the Labour Party counts for little. When a radicalised Hindu voter sees prominent south Asians in the Labour Party (Sadiq Khan, Shabana Mahmood, Rosena Allin-Khan) they don’t see people who look like them — they see Pakistanis. New Labour multiculturalism no longer resonates with Indians, yet Labour hasn’t recognised this change and continues to treat minority representation as a monolith without appreciating community tensions. The Conservatives have been exploiting this, positioning themselves as the home for Hindus. They have embraced Modi as an old friend; Conservatives regularly feature on Asian TV; and Bob Blackman, the Tory MP for Harrow, has toured the London temple circuit more often than the Rolling Stones have announced farewell tours.

The Conservative exploitation of Hindu-Muslim tension is epitomised by the 2016 London Mayoral election; Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate, proclaimed that a vote for Sadiq Khan would mean a “wealth tax on family jewellery”, tapping into deep-rooted community prejudices. Conservative supporters have repeatedly used anti-Muslim rhetoric in campaigning, and this sadly lands well with Hindu nationalist voters. Labour should have come up with a unifying message for the south Asian community yet it chose a race to the bottom, publishing a leaflet for British Muslims before the Batley and Spen by-election focused on Boris Johnson’s relationship with Modi. It received widespread negative coverage in the closely followed Indian press.

The rift between Labour and the Hindu community has grown in recent years, exacerbated by Conservative dog-whistle campaigns, Labour MPs highlighting human rights problems in India, and Labour’s stance on Kashmir. A 2019 Labour conference motion calling for intervention in the disputed region was especially criticised by Hindu Indians. The party has in fact managed to anger both Hindu nationalists and liberal Indians over the issue. The former strongly identifies with the BJP while for the latter Labour’s line harked back to the colonial past, sounding like a foreign power preaching superiority over an independent nation.

A lifelong Labour voter and anti-BJP campaigner summed up this view to me: “Labour comes across as anti-India. They only focus on our problems and we already know our problems. They treat us as a poor third-world nation and patronisingly tell us what’s wrong with our country like we haven’t noticed. Shedding light on human rights abuses is necessary, but that’s all they ever do. They never talk about India in any other context. They haven’t even recognised our economic growth. The Conservatives do, and treat us as equals, as friends. The Conservatives celebrate India. The Labour party just tells us what the government’s done wrong.”

These factors all played a large part in Labour’s loss of Harrow council this month, but there’s one more thing the party should keep in mind as it conducts its polling day post-mortem: rubbish. Nothing will counter local election apathy in this country more than bin radicalisation, and the Harrow Conservatives ran a targeted campaign about flytipping. Changes to bin collections intended to promote recycling have led to overflowing bins across Harrow, and stories about the bin crisis dominated the local press in the run-up to the election.

Reducing household waste and recycling are alien concepts to the wealthy Indian voter. In India waste management is mired in casteism, with handling waste historically a profession for scheduled castes, the most discriminated-against castes in India. Recycling has been virtually non-existent until recently, with the only recycling carried out by the extremely poor, scavenging landfills for reusable plastics. The average wealthy Indian probably grew up with staff picking up after them; from their perspective, taking out the bins now that they live in London is enough of a struggle without adding the separation of food, recycling and green waste. Pleas to reduce landfill and promote recycling will have fallen on deaf ears in this community, contributing to the Harrow bin crisis that the Conservative were able to capitalise on.

Harrow is no longer the same place that the East African community adopted in the 1970s, and the Indian voter is no longer the person Labour is used to courting. Many have flirted with the Tory party and upon realising how much they identify with nationalist social conservatism, have stayed in its welcoming embrace. It may not be too late for Labour to win back this community but even if the situation is fixable, does today’s Labour really have the appetite to win the Hindu nationalist vote?

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