Rakib Ehsan is a Doctoral Researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in voting behaviour and ethnic minority political engagement.
With the Labour leadership contest drawing to a close, it looks increasingly likely that Jeremy Corbyn will be elected as the party’s new leader. If he emerges victorious, there are several issues of deep electoral significance he must address – one being the Conservative Party’s growing appeal among aspirational British Indian voters.
According to a post-election study by British Future, Labour are now behind the Tories within the British Hindu and Sikh communities by a margin of 8 per cent. While the British Bangladeshi and Pakistani vote has remained solidly Labour, there has been a real loosening in the historical party-voter relationship between Labour and people of Indian origin. This is important, since their presence within key marginal towns such as Swindon, Watford and Croydon make British Indians a vital electoral demographic. Therefore, the question arises: has Corbyn got what it takes to bring back these crucial voters to their supposed natural home?
Corbyn’s old-style model of political economy is straightforward: high taxes funding a comprehensive welfare state designed for mass redistribution. He has pledged to end austerity, impose higher taxes on the rich, and protect those dependent on welfare.
If self-sufficient, thrifty British Indian voters had reservations over Ed Miliband’s economic policies, they will find the core tenets of Corbynomics utterly unpalatable. His policy of introducing rent controls will be greeted with scorn from the ever-growing number of well-to-do British Indian landlords with extensive portfolios in the private rented sector. Focusing on renters who are struggling to meet living costs may be novel, but also shifts attention away from an aspirational British Indian sub-electorate which places considerable emphasis on home ownership.
The grand idea of ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, whereby the Bank of England would print money for large-scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects, has been thoroughly discredited by Labour’s own Shadow Chancellor, Chris Leslie, who has said it would lead to high inflation and inevitable interest rate hikes.
Leslie’s critique of “People’s QE” will certainly capture the interest of the British Indian business community. High inflation is notoriously undesirable, with inflationary fluctuations making it difficult for business owners to predict the future and accurately calculate prices, production costs, and return from investments. Interest rate increases are particularly bad for mortgage holders – the middle-class Indian Hindu and Sikh families among which the Conservatives now enjoy an electoral advantage over Labour would much prefer interest rates to remain low and stable. The property-owning entrepreneurial types that have come to characterise the British Indian community would thus view Corbyn as an economic danger.
Along with economic management, Corbyn may well find himself at odds with much of Britain’s Indian community over the issue of welfare. Opposing the government’s Welfare Bill, which includes limiting child tax credit to two children, Corbyn described the proposed reforms as “rotten and indefensible”. While this could be a popular move among a vast number of British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, it is likely to receive little support within the British Indian population.
Relative to the other South Asian communities, British Indian Hindu and Sikhs have traditionally lower fertility rates. Indeed, according to a number of studies, the British Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities have historically ranked in the top two when measuring average fertility rates by ethnicity in the UK. Meanwhile, according to a 2010 Population Studies paper, the fertility rate for the British Indian community fell below the UK national average.
When combining the reality of fertility rate differences with levels of female participation in the labour market, the reason for British Indians’ more conservative position on welfare is better understood. According to the 2011 UK Census, 31 per cent of British Indian females aged 16-64 were economically inactive. For British Bangladeshi and Pakistani females aged 16-64, this figure stood at 61 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.
The average fertility and female labour market participation rates imply that within the British Indian community, there are a higher proportion of two-income small-sized households, meaning there is a significantly lower need to depend on state support (such as child-related benefits) in comparison to their British Bangladeshi and Pakistani counterparts. Corbyn’s passionate protection of welfare may well be appealing among the already solidly ‘red’ Bangladeshi and Pakistani sub-electorates, but it will achieve very little in terms of winning more self-reliant middle-class British Indians living in key marginals that returned Conservative MPs in the last general election.
This Bangladeshi/Pakistani-Indian split in Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal is also demonstrated through foreign policy issues. If elected as leader, Corbyn has expressed his intention to issue an official apology on behalf of the Labour Party for the 2003 invasion of Iraq – viewed by many British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis as an illegal form of Anglo-American militarism which cost the lives of countless fellow Muslims. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also a religio-political matter which runs deep in the Muslim-dominant communities, with Corbyn’s vociferous support for Palestinian state recognition positioning him most favourably with such voters. However, for British Hindu and Sikh voters, these issues are unlikely to rank as highly in terms of personal importance.
What is abundantly clear is that if Corbyn is elected leader his appeal among British South Asian voters would be primarily concentrated within the Bangladeshi and Pakistani sub-electorates – which remained solidly Labour in the last election. For the well-educated aspirational homeowners, wealth-creating entrepreneurs and well-to-do landlords that comprise much of the British Indian community, the high-tax, anti-austerity, state-interventionist economics of ‘Corbynism’ are far more radical than the Labour Party policies many rejected earlier in May.
Corbyn would not be trusted to manage the economy in a way that would allow their businesses to grow and thrive and enable them to keep their mortgage repayments under control. His passionate defence of a generous welfare state runs counter to values that are truly embedded in the ‘British Indian’ psyche: self-reliance, personal responsibility, entrepreneurialism. Among this key electoral demographic, Corbyn is quite simply unelectable. He is a Labour leader-in-waiting – but may just become the man that is ultimately responsible for making the Conservatives the natural party for British Indians.