Asian Politics in Britain:
‘Casting an eye upon racial politics in Britain at the end of 1990’s, it would appear that Asian participation in political life has developed, from a low start, to maturity and strength. Electoral data confirms that in 1997 the registration and turnout rate of this large and varied group ranked alongside or even exceeded their white (and black) counterparts. Five Asians were successfully elected in that year’s general election, all but one representing seats in which large numbers of Asian voters were concentrated. In local government, estimates from the mid-1990’s revealed a fairly astonishing rate of improvement: over one hundred had been elected outside London, achieving a position very close to parity, with a similar picture emerging in several inner London boroughs. Lastly, the strong electoral alignment between Asians and the Labour Party meant that many independent commentators had begun speculating openly, perhaps naively, about the potential benefits that might be thought to accrue from this relationship. A generation previously, Asians had been few in number in elective politics, rarely successful as candidates, often confined to the terrain of single-issue ‘homeland’ politics, and generally undervalued by mainstream parties.
This amounts to a significant transformation by any standards. Furthermore, even though considerable progress can be charted, it remains the case that structural and other impediments exist on the communities chances of attaining greater influence. Three central factors have been behind the story of political maturation. First, Britain’s electoral arrangements have placed weight on electoral strength derived from sheer numbers of voters. For Asians, this has been an opportunity in the sense that the combined size size of the three largest Asian groups -Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis -had reached 1.5 million (based on outdated Census data from 1991). Estimates closer to the 1997 election suggested that growth of the order of a further third was likely by the following Census in 2001. One Asian media outlet reported some 36 ‘Asian marginals’, where notional Asian voters were greater than defending majorities. Whilst this may have talked up the actual figure, it remained the case for that a number of serving candidates felt that the importance of this would-be voting bloc could not be overlooked.
Second, the constellation of issues and interests that comprise mainstream parties’ interest in Asian affairs has gradually shifted away from first-generation immigration matters and towards the aspirations of British-born younger Asians (now a majority within the community at large). The upshot of this has been that interest has gravitated to mainstream educational, employment, and related policies in which it is increasingly conceded there is a legitimate ‘Asian dimension’. For instance, distinctive though complementary arrangements aimed at boosting recruitment in areas such as policing, civil service employment, and higher education are now commonplace.
Finally, the face of Asian political involvement has not been divorced from the group’s participation in British economic life. In this regard, recent Labour Force Survey evidence has shown wider divergence in the patterns of some groups of Asians as compared with others. However, in education, employment, and business start-ups decisive headway has been achieved amongst Indian Asians in particular. As part of a wider picture of advancement, such economic progress has been described by many as heralding a new era of weakening partisanship with the Labour Party. One of the interesting backless dogs, therefore, has been the singular failure of Labour’s opponents to build a sizeable following among Asians. Evidence form the 1997 British Election Study indicated that the problem has not stemmed from lack of effort (there has been plenty) but rather from a failure to exploit a growing social class division in the political outlook of middle-class Asians compared with their numerous working -class peers. The secret of Asian politics may thus lie in first understanding traditional British class politics’.
From, John Ramsden, Professor of Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London.
References: R. Ballard (ed.), ‘Desh Pradesh: The South Asian Presence in Britain’, London, 1994.
References: C. Holmes, ‘John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society 1871-1971’, London, 1988.
References: S. Saggar (ed.), ‘Race and British Electoral Politics’, London, 1998.