The Brexit Asian Vote

Polls conducted before the European referendum indicated that ethnic minority voters were more likely to vote Remain.

However, there is data to suggest that the strength of euroscepticism within the British South Asian population was perhaps stronger than previously anticipated.

A number of jurisdictions with large South Asian populations delivered Leave votes, including Luton (56.5% Leave), Hillingdon (56.4% Leave), Slough (54.3% Leave) and Bradford (54.2% Leave). All have South Asian populations of 25% and above. It’s not unreasonable to think that such Leave votes could not have been delivered without a significant number of Asian voters opting for Brexit.

Why did some South Asians vote for a campaign that was, at times, seen as bigoted and xenophobic? Why did a number of middle-class South Asians (most notably those living in West London) not vote in a way which their socio-economic status would predict?

One reason might be that many voters within the British South Asian diaspora don’t feel European. When the Remain campaign sought to appeal to a sense of European identity, and warned that people were about to lose that identity, it didn’t make for a particularly convincing argument.

First-generation migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were encouraged to integrate under a social policy based on the adoption of “British values”. Being absorbed into a “European collective” was never, in reality, really part of that integration process.

The pro-Commonwealth rhetoric coming from the Leave camp, on the other hand, would have pulled on the heartstrings of many South Asian voters.

The Commonwealth argument became particularly interesting when the Leave campaign talked about immigration. Prominent Leave campaigners such as Michael Gove often claimed that the EU was essentially forcing Britain to implement a “racist” immigration system. While predominantly white EU migrants were allowed to freely enter the UK, those from the Indian subcontinent were subject to visa and work restrictions. Voting Brexit was seen as an opportunity to “level out” this in-built unfairness. 

We still don’t have much information about how specific groups voted in the referendum but what we can gather from the ward-level data is telling. The Brexit voter is not just your dispossessed, lower-educated white Northerner. They might also be your well-to-do, educated voter of Indian origin living in one of West London’s leafier suburbs.

[Rakib Ehsan (2017), London School of Economics]

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