14 February 2024

How popular is Rishi Sunak among British Indians?

By Bertie Wnek

Recent polling suggests that, in the past 14 years, support for Labour among British Indians has dropped from 61% to just 30%. Labour has historically enjoyed widespread support among the British Muslim community. However, their popularity with this group has dropped from 86% to 60%, potentially due to concerns over their handling of the conflict in Gaza. In addition, the Labour Party is now concerned that it is rapidly losing the support of voters of Indian heritage. We at Public First ran two focus groups of British-Indian voters in London and Leicester in the autumn, to see whether Labour’s anxiety reflect a real political problem.

This research formed part of our ongoing ‘New Citizens’ project, which has been looking at the political attitudes of those who have recently become eligible to vote, or soon will be. 

In typical swing voter groups, there will be substantial complaints that Sunak is not visible enough, not battling enough, and not focusing on the right priorities – concerns which are reflected in the Tories’ historically low polling numbers. 

However, these focus groups provided some evidence of the shifting balance of support away from Labour and towards the Conservatives within the British Indian community. They suggested Labour is right, fundamentally, to be worried. 

According to Bhav, one of the participants, ‘Rishi’s a silent patriot. He’s not going to shout from the rooftop – saying how British he is – but I think that’s a good thing.’ Bhav is speaking about the Prime Minister’s heritage. Having been born in India, migrating to the UK as a young child over 35 years ago, Bhav describes himself as both British and Indian, but believes, deep down, the PM is British first and ‘everything else second’. Still, like many others in the discussion, it was a source of pride that a fellow British Indian was in Number 10. 

There were other positives.

Sunak’s efforts to paint himself as a long-termist – almost technocratic – leader, taking difficult decisions for the good of the country clearly cut through. Most viewed him as a hard worker who had been dealt a difficult hand; one which they thought he had played well. Take Prashant, a third generation British-Indian man from Leicester, who said; ‘The economy was at breaking point (when he came in). You had strikes, you had all sorts, everything was firing, so in that sense he’s done well to stabilise the economy‘. 

On a personal level, most thought he was likeable and fundamentally decent. There was a sense that he’d earned his spot, and some believed that, even now, he could turn things around. ‘You need to go through the worst phase to come out of it and make the future better. And I think he is doing that’ said Bhuv, a warehouse worker from Loughborough.

All the same, this relative warmth didn’t cancel out their concerns. Many voters see Sunak as out of touch and these groups were no exception. Hena, a second generation logistics manager from Leicester, put it most simply when talking about his family: ‘They come across as a very solid unit. However, again, not relatable’. Most felt that Sunak’s wealth meant he just couldn’t get to grips with the struggles of normal life.

When we discussed the Conservative Party itself, deeper concerns surfaced. They were unenthusiastic about the Labour but viewed the Conservatives similarly to typical swing voter groups. They expressed hostility towards it and believed that it was time for change. When it came to this issue, these participants were therefore more in line – overall – with typical swing voter groups, just with significantly more sympathy for the PM. 

What does this mean for the main parties? In spite of how similarly the Conservative Party was viewed, these discussions with British Indians were still very significantly more positive than most swing voter groups we ran at the time. Yes, they were only two groups, and we need to apply caution to results from such a small sample, but they are in line with other research conducted by us and others in recent times. 

It looks like the Labour Party does, therefore, have work to do with voters of Indian heritage. They are clearly worried for a reason. Whether this makes any difference to the outcome of this election seems unlikely – such is Labour’s lead – but they will be thinking about the longer-term too. 

Unsurprisingly in a discussion about British and Indian identity, there was room for some talk about cricket. Joking about whether the PM was more Indian or British, Bitu, a first generation British-Indian immigrant from London, suggested it was down to one thing – who he supports when England plays India in this month’s test match: ‘That’s where I differentiate it… it all comes down to cricket for Indians, that’s the real test’. 

Who did they think the PM would be supporting? They were unsure, but Bhav summed up most voters’ attitudes to modern politicians: ‘it all depends who’s winning’.

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Bertie Wnek is a Senior Policy Manager at Public First.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.