Experts say South Asians are behaving more like British white voters in that they shop around to choose a political party.
By Inzamam Rashid, Sky News correspondent and Nick Stylianou, producer
South Asians no longer voting as a bloc could hold the balance of power in key marginal seats in the general election.
Maria Sobolewska, an expert in voting behaviour at the University of Manchester, has researched voting patterns in ethnic groups and found the community elders’ grip on Asian voting habits is losing its force.
She said: “South Asians are behaving more and more like a white British voter in a sense that they shop around for a political party.
“A lot of Asian-origin and minority-origin voters want to vote on economic competence, on the NHS, on education.
“In a handful of marginal constituencies, the British Asians could hold the balance of power if the Conservatives manage to successfully appeal to them.”
In Pendle, Lancashire, one in five people come from a South Asian background – almost three times the national average.
The majority of them are Pakistani Muslims, brought to the UK by the owners of cotton mills needing cheap labour in the 1960s.
Misbah admits she’s forced to re-examine her political opinions every day, due to the pressures of the Asian community. She said elder members of Asian society, known as ‘Uncles’ play on family ties for her vote.
She said: “Asian Uncles knock on my door saying ‘you’re voting Conservative’. And I’m like, ‘Am I’? They say ‘yeah, I worked with your dad 40 years ago…'”
She said it’s taken time for her to “pluck up the courage” to suggest she’s voting on each party’s policies, but that her friends who are switching sides shows disloyalty: “These are people who came to the country under a Labour government – they’re the reason they’re here, not the Conservatives.”
At Awaaz FM, we hosted a phone-in on presenter Rabia Aziz’s radio show, where all the callers were keen to publicly proclaim their allegiance to Labour.
But the constituency voted for a Conservative MP in 2017 – and it’s clear the South Asian vote helped secure that victory.
Estate agent Muhammad Tariq has been a Labour Party member his whole life, until now.
As a Leave voter, he’s unconvinced by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He said: “I’ve switched in a big way – in the local election last year the Tory party won because of the vast majority of Asian votes.
“If I can change my views – my very strong views where I campaigned every year – normal people can change just like that.”
Another South Asian group noticeably increasing its support for the Conservative Party in both 2017 and 2015 are British Indians, in particular Sikhs and Hindus.
For many of them, this general election is about delivering the result of the EU referendum, even if that means changing lifelong voting habits.
The trend is reflected south of the Peak District in West Bromwich East, which has been Labour-held since its creation in 1974.
Again, one in five people are Asian, who strongly supported the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson.
But 68% of the constituency voted to leave the EU, and now the Conservatives think it’s winnable.
Manjit and Ravi Phull run a metalworks based in West Bromwich, with a diverse workforce mainly made up of Indians. It’s been a family business in the town for decades.
“I voted out”, Manjit said. “And I know Conservatives want to leave now. So I have to support my vote, and I’m happy to vote Conservative, because to be honest, I’m with Boris now. I want to be able to set our own rules and regulations for this company and for businesses, for the economy.”
Her husband voted Remain, but is still voting Conservative: “Having inherited the business and taken it over, my priorities have changed in terms of what we need for myself, for my family.”
But Ravi admits that both main parties have problems winning over ethnic minorities:
“I think as Asians, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. You’ve got the antisemitism row with Labour. You’ve got the ‘letterbox’ row with Boris Johnson. If you work on, sort of, racism, I don’t think we’d vote for any of them.”
Professor Sobolewska’s research shows that partisan identities are held on to longer in Asian families than in other groups: “We think that is because the patterns of passing on that [political] identity from parent to child is stronger in minority communities than the equivalent young people of white British origin.”
For many years, the Labour Party has had the lion’s share of the South Asian vote – but the trend from the last two general elections shows times are changing.
The Leave campaign – as divisive and nativist as parts of it were – achieved something that the Conservative Party has been trying to do for decades.
At this general election, it’s the South Asian vote in the UK that could pave the way to Number 10.