Ethnic minorities could be decisive in 168 seats, research suggests. Parties must raise their game to woo them
The most recent census showed that the population under 18 is significantly more ethnically diverse than the rest of the electorate. This is filtering into the make-up of those who vote. Research published on Monday by Operation Black Vote (OBV) concludes that any future majority government will only be possible with the support of ethnic minority voters.
The Runnymede Trust’s authoritative study of political integration and ethnic minority voting behaviour in the 2010 general election found that two out of three black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voters supported Labour. Just one in six supported the Conservatives. These voters had the potential to decide 99 seats in England and Wales in the 2010 election. But OBV say this will reach 168 seats in 2015.
Whereas once political parties opted to tailor their policies to specific issues important to particular ethnic groups, it’s now about the range of different paths that parties must take to expand their support base. The importance of getting on the right side of demographic change was seen in last year’s US election. For the first time the turnout rate of “minority” voters exceeded that of white voters. While Mitt Romney won 60% of the white vote, this couldn’t compensate for his failure to engage with minorities. As in the US, the British electorate has changed, and it is vital that our politics changes to reflect this.
This isn’t about treating minority citizens as a bloc vote that automatically supports Labour. Their support must be earned. In fact, the level of support for Labour among ethnic minorities has been higher in the past. And the bad news for lazy politicians is that simply visiting a temple at Diwali, sharing a samosa at Eid or attending a community event in Black History Month won’t be enough. Nor will relying on community elders or gatekeepers to deliver the vote. Minority ethnic issues need to be mainstream issues.
The surge in successful applications from minority ethnic communities for our Future Candidates Programme shows Labour’s commitment. But having chaired Labour’s inquiry into the Bradford West byelection defeat, it is clear that there are some parts of the country where politics is still letting down citizens.
An exciting discovery has been that minority ethnic votes aren’t confined to inner cities or safe seats. They are spread around the country with significant numbers in seats key to Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. This means minority voters have never been more powerful and should demand more from political parties. I welcome an arms race for minority ethnic voters. This will ensure we all raise our game.
This year marked 45 years since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech on the consequences of immigration. As an electorate we’ve come a long way. Attitudes that were once acceptable are long gone. Events such as Stephen Lawrence’s murder had a deep and lasting effect on society, not just particular ethnic groups.
The recent public backlash against the Home Office’s “Go home or face arrest” campaign comes as a reminder that politicians can’t single out and scapegoat ethnic groups in the way they were able to in the past without offending society as a whole. Bearing in mind the track record of the Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby â€“ he was, after all, responsible for the Tories’ “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” posters in 2005 â€“ it’s curious that Conservatives think he will help them win over those voters at the next election they couldn’t win over in 2010.
OBV’s research confirms that if the Tory tactic was to ignore minority ethnic voters, that will no longer be possible. They are one among many groups that parties need to win over â€“ yet perhaps now one of the most important.
‘Conservative party’s problem with ethnic minority voters is costing it seats’
Ignoring the UK’s significant non-white population could diminish political parties’ reach for a parliamentary majority:
Research published on Sunday has highlighted the growing importance of ethnic minorities in British parliamentary politics, putting numbers and names to seats that could be determined by their votes.
The study by Operation Black Vote is one of a series examining the growing importance of the ethnic minority vote in the UK. It also boosts the thinking in the three main parties, and among some electoral experts, that the ethnic vote is a growing factor in determining who will be the next occupant of No 10.
It presents a challenge for all politicians, but for the Conservatives it is a problem they are being warned could consign them to life without a majority or worse. Even in 2010, when Labour suffered one of its worst defeats, and after the Tory leader David Cameron tried to detoxify his party’s nasty image, the Conservatives made little inroad into the ethnic vote.
Data shows that the Conservatives got 16% of ethnic minority votes, just ahead of the Liberal Democrats on 14%, while Labour got 68%. This is down from the 80% or more Labour has previously won, but came against the background of its worst electoral performance since 1918 as support slumped in all voting demographics.
By 2012 an unexpected voice was spending money to try to get the Conservatives to tackle the issue with more vigour and urgency: Lord Ashcroft, the former Treasurer and deputy chair of the Tory party, who commissioned polls and focus groups to get a sense of the problem.
After studying the results, Ashcroft wrote about his party’s relationship with the ethnic minority vote: “We must do better than this â€“ both because we should be a party for the whole country, and because we will find it increasingly difficult to win a majority without them. There is no doubt that in 2010 this situation cost us seats.” The Conservatives failed to win a majority in 2010, falling 20 seats short, despite Labour’s long stretch in power.
Ashcroft wrote: “In the 20 of Labour’s 100 most vulnerable marginals that the Tories failed to win, the average non-white population was 15%. In the five of those that were in London, it was 28%. The Conservative party’s problem with ethnic minority voters is costing it seats.”
He added: “Not being white was the single best predictor that somebody would not vote Conservative.”
Informed by his polling, Ashcroft concluded the Conservatives were seen as being cool or hostile to ethnic minorities, while Labour were supportive.
With a cabinet made up of old Etonians and millionaires, the government has problems convincing voters across the general population that it has the interests of ordinary people at heart. But among ethnic minorities other factors make this problem more severe.
Ashcroft wrote: “Labour was regarded as more engaged in their communities, more positive than others about the idea of immigration, and more committed to promoting equality and opportunity for ethnic minorities.”
A 2012 study by Professor Anthony Heath for the Runnymede Trust showed how stark antipathy towards the Conservatives was. Ethnicity trumped usual predictors of voting behaviour such as class and occupation, and Heath concluded: “Around seven in 10 ethnic minority voters support the Labour party, regardless of social class.”
Senior Tories have been baffled over the years, viewing ethnic minorities as natural Conservatives because of strong adherence to family life, social conservatism and entrepreneurship.
Heath’s study set all racial groups a question to determine how politically progressive they were. They were asked if they preferred the government to spend rather than cut taxes. Among white voters, 49% said yes. In every other ethnic group fewer supported the supposedly progressive answer. Just 32% from a Bangladeshi background supported greater government spending, and just 42% of black Caribbeans.
The Heath study showed ethnic minorities, some 70%, were much more supportive in improving opportunities for minorities, than white Britons â€“ of whom 19% supported that position.
Within the 2010 ethnic vote there are variations of support for Labour, but it still counts as overwhelming for every community. The least supportive were Britons with Indian heritage, but even then Labour got 61% of the vote compared to 24% for the Conservatives. Among those of African heritage, the Tories, the dominant political party of the 20th century, got 6%, with Labour getting 87%.
The Heath study found ethnic minority voter registration can be slightly lower than that of white British voters, and Operation Black Vote says it will launch voter registration drives ahead of 2015. The study found ethnic minority turnout was only slightly lower.
Among the Conservative party it is reported they are considering policies to appeal to ethnic minorities such as requiring businesses to publish the racial makeup of their workforces.
Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West, has been tasked with trying to close the Conservatives’ race gap. One challenge he faces is getting his colleagues to realise the scale of the problem. The next is a balancing act all parties face â€“ attracting ethnic minority voters while not alienating white voters who may feel ignored.