Asian voices are being heard in UK elections

While support for the Conservatives in the Indian community increased, it saw a decline in support from the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in the recent elections

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Sun 15 May 2022, 11:20 PM

Elections at the local or regional levels usually do not impact the national government, but they do send clear signals about the state of the two main parties that dominate British politics: Conservative and Labour.

The local elections are mostly fought on local issues, but national developments also have a significant bearing, particularly during times such as this, when ‘Partygate’ and the rising cost of living continue to rumble on in the headlines.

During campaigning for the May 5 local elections, several Conservative candidates exerted to distance themselves from the national leadership, calling themselves ‘local Conservatives’, pleading with voters angry with parties in Downing Street not to punish them for the acts of the national leadership.

To no one’s surprise, including many in the Conservative party, the local elections produced the much-anticipated reverse in the party’s electoral fortunes; it lost nearly 500 seats. Statistical modelling shows that if the voting patterns were extrapolated at the national level, the Conservative party, which won a landslide in the 2019 election under the leadership of Boris Johnson, will lose the next round in 2024.

Recent electoral history also predicts such a reverse. Results since 1974 show a clear correlation for the Conservative party between the number of its councillors elected and the number of MPs elected in general elections two years later: the lower number of councillors elected in local polls is followed by a lower number of party MPs elected. If the trend continues, British politics will see another major change in the 2024 election.

Elections were held on May 5 in 200 councils across Great Britain: England held elections in 146 councils, while all 32 councils in Scotland and 22 Welsh councils were up for election. Across England, Wales and Scotland, elections were held for 6,863 seats. There were also elections for six mayors and the second election of a metro-mayor in South Yorkshire. Bristol held a referendum on whether to change the current system of a directly elected mayor to a committee system.

The overall outcome was clearly not good news for the Conservative party: besides losing nearly 500 councillors, it also lost control in the totemic London councils of Westminster, Wandsworth and Brent, with Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Green party making major gains.

“It is mid-term. It’s certainly a mixed set of results”, said Johnson, admitting that it was a ‘tough night’ in some parts of the country, but saw gains in others. Labour, which lost control of councils in Croydon and Tower Hamlets, retained its overall vote share of 35 per cent, but did not gain much from Conservative losses. The main beneficiaries of the Tory losses were the Liberal Democrats and the Green party.

In many ways, the most significant result was in the election to the council in Harrow, which has a large population of Indian, and particularly, Gujarat origin. Two weeks before the election, Johnson travelled to India on a two-day visit, landing first in Gujarat, donning a headgear and visiting a Hindu temple, providing several photo opportunities that played well locally and in the Asian media before the local elections.

In a field dominated by candidates of Indian origin, the gained eight seats from Labour and for the first time in 12 years, wrested overall control of the council from Labour.

The result was another reaffirmation of what can be called the ‘Cameron doctrine’, which has helped the party win over large, young, aspirational sections of the 1.6 million-strong British Indian community in recent elections. After taking over as the party leader in 2005, he assiduously wooed the community, appearing at religious events, increasing the representation in candidates, besides seeking a ‘special relationship’ with India (later visiting India three times as prime minister). To a large extent, he helped erase the earlier perception of the Conservative party being the ‘nasty party’ on immigration, even though the dwindling number of first-generation immigrants continues to back Labour. Successive elections since 2015 have seen Labour haemorrhaging support in the community, many are incensed at Labour’s position on sensitive issues such as Jammu and Kashmir. While support for the Conservatives in the Indian community increased, it saw a decline in support from the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in the recent elections.

Another significant outcome of the local election was Aspire, a new party, wresting control of the Tower Hamlets council from Labour, winning 24 of the 45 seats. The borough has a large population of Bangladesh origin. Aspire is founded by Lutfur Rahman, a controversial politician, who was found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices in 2015 and was disqualified from holding electoral office for five years. Rahman defeated Labour incumbent John Biggs to become the mayor of Tower Hamlets, while his party won overall control of the council. Keen to put the past behind, Rahman asked people to “judge me on what we will do for you”.

In some ways, elections in parts of Britain with large minority populations have come to resemble those in the Indian sub-continent: voting according to the ‘biraderi’ system; trans-national campaigning for elections back home; mainstream leaders appearing at religious places and participating in rituals in photo-ops that used to be called ‘minority appeasement’; Bollywood actors campaigning for candidates; and videos, songs and pamphlets produced by parties in Asian languages to woo voters. Britain’s multicultural reality is never more visible than during elections – the 2024 general election is expected to see more Asian colours, music, candidates and MPs.

The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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