UK elections: Indian Voters Can Make a Big Difference

 Letter from New Delhi

“If you could pick one politician apart from yourself to win, who would it be and why?” asked Reema, a ten-year-old Indian origin girl from Salford, Greater Manchester to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

He failed to come up with an answer saying, “I am afraid it is too difficult to say I would like someone else to win other than me or I wouldn’t be here, and I am quite keen on winning.”

But the results for the general elections on 7 May could be different. Instead of the traditional two political parties – Conservatives and Labour – at least four main parties are contesting. Interestingly, the vote of the three-million Indian diaspora has become crucial. In fact, the minority voters are a hefty six million. No wonder all parties are trying to woo them.

The Indian diaspora form 5 per cent of the total population and their votes can make a difference between winning and losing in some strong Asian strongholds in the country.

Traditionally, Labour has enjoyed the vehement support of the Asian community – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis – but this plummeted in the last election because of the party’s marked failures. Largely prosperous and upwardly mobile, Asian voters turned up in big numbers to support the Conservatives led by David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats by Nick Clegg in the last election, shaking Labour’s traditional stranglehold on Asian voters. Though only 16 per cent ethnic minority voters balloted for the Conservatives and 18 per cent for Lib-Dems, it still shook the Labour Party.

The pattern among Britain’s Indian voters shows a very clear and consistent support for Labour, much more than their white counterparts but in the long run, the new generations of Asians will be losing their traditional support for Labour.

The 2010 election showed that an overwhelming 74 per cent Muslims supported Labour followed by 73 per cent Sikhs, 51 per cent Hindus and 39 per cent East African Asians whereas only 31 per cent whites supported this Party.

This gives weight to the argument that a section of East African Asians – Hindus and Sikhs – fed up with the failures of the Labour Party, voted for the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems in the 2010 polls. This year, however, the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) has waded into the fray. This party is perceived to be anti-immigration and has gained popularity with the whites, but is less endeared by the Asians and ethnic minorities.

This four-way fight is bound to split the vote between Labour, Conservatives, the Lib-Dems and UKIP.

Both Labour and the Conservatives can draw comfort from the fact that Asians will largely choose between them. UKIP, the right-wing populist party led by Nigel Farage did well in the last Local Government elections but Farage’s party spits toxic immigration venom on the multi-ethnic society. It relies heavily on disgruntled white voters fed up of the immigration policies of the heavy-weights and constant bickering on the future of Britain’s position in the EU.

A growing number of Indian origin MPs in the current British Parliament include the longest serving Keith Vaz, Alok Sharma, Paul Uppal, Priti Patel, Seema Malhotra, Shailesh Vara, Valerie Vaz and Virendra Sharma.

Recent opinion polls show that the Conservatives and Labour are neck-to-neck and the election result could be a cliff-hanger. There are 160 marginal seats in the UK where the Asian and other ethnic minority vote could decide who is in power. But dissatisfied with what they perceive as ‘economic failures’ and austerity measures by David Cameron, the pendulum could swing back in favour of Labour. The much-anticipated pro-Labour swing among Asian voters may consequently spell winning marginal seats for Ed Miliband, the Labour leader.

A study by Operation Black Vote suggests that there will be 70 per cent more seats than there were in 2010 where Asian and Black voters could decide the outcome on 7 May.

The Conservatives, in the run-up to the 2015 elections deliberately displayed visual enthusiasm for Diwali parties and other Asian celebrations, with photographs. This is because many Asians see the Conservatives less favourable to them and other ethnic minorities. A London shopkeeper, Sailesh Patel, is in no doubt that his family will go the way his parents did for many years – vote for Labour.

But Labour has racked up a storm by pledging that if it wins it will tighten the noose on tax evaders. It will also scrap the non-domiciled status system under which those with permanent homes abroad do not have to pay UK tax on their overseas earnings. Only their UK earnings are taxed. Foreign billionaires who have settled here, however, pay a token £30,000 a year to the government.

If Labour wins the election, it wants to scrap this rule and thus raise hundreds of millions of Pounds for the Treasury. Historically, the notion of non-domiciled status for tax purposes was introduced by Lord William Pitt the Younger in 1799. This has gone largely unquestioned ever since. “We don’t compete in the world by offering tax advantages to a few that we don’t give to all our citizens and businesses,” Mr. Miliband said.

“It is not fair on all those millions of working people and businesses who pay their share and play by the rules. And it’s not fair on all the people who rely on our public services either,” he added.

Currently, over 116,000 ‘non-doms’ – mostly Arab and Russians – live in the UK who could face the same tax demands as the less wealthy Britons. Although Conservatives dismiss Labour’s pronouncements as just another silly prank; some observers say if they go ahead, non-dom foreign billionaires living in Britain could be forced to pay tax both on their UK and overseas incomes.

The list of non-dom Indians include Baron Bagri (Raj Bagri); Sudhir Choudhrie, Lakshmi Mittal , Curry King Sir Gulam Noon (who gave up his non-dom status to become assistant treasurer of the Labour Party) and Lord (Swaraj) Paul who gave up his non-dom status in 2010 to retain his seat in the House of Lords. The new rule could make London a less attractive place for foreign businesses and there are whispers that some top names may shift their investments to countries with more friendly tax rules.

However, the middle-class voters are less interested in the abolition of non-dom status. As they get ready to cast their votes, they are more interested in what benefits those who come to power will give the electorate in their normal lives.

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi. Shamlal Puri is a senior journalist and an author of four novels on current trends who lives in London.


* Published in print edition on 17 April  2015

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