Across Europe and North America the political right is increasingly focused on widening their appeal to black and minority ethnic (BME) voters. This is partly a genuine commitment to greater inclusion in their parties, but it is also a strategic recognition of the growing voting power of BME citizens.
In the UK 68% of black and minority ethnic voters choose Labour
, compared to around 16% voting Conservative. And as Republicans in the United States have found, this is a rising population that cannot be easily engaged if they are switched off as young voters. In the UK research finds that BME voters are often more in line with Conservative than Labour positions. But on the issue of ‘diversity’, such voters are far less convinced of the Conservative position, again resonating with Republican difficulties in the US.
This issue is often discussed with reference to Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech
, which is judged to have alienated BME voters for at least a generation. It is certainly positive to hear Conservative and now UKIP politicians rejecting Powell’s pessimistic forecasts for ethnic conflict in Britain
, and we should celebrate what some have called an acceptance of an ‘anti-prejudice’ norm
over the past few decades.
In Britain today there is no difficulty for politicians in affirming the right values, but our lofty ideals about tolerance and fairness are not always translated - via policy and outcomes - into a reality for BME people, who continue to experience significant ethnic inequalities across the country.
It’s also notable that many rejections of Powell are counterbalanced by a rejection of ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘separatism’
. Here right-leaning politicians may be underestimating the degree of dissatisfaction with their policies among BME voters. While many politicians appear to think ‘multiculturalism’ refers to widespread policies from the 1980s that encouraged ethnic separatism, few BME voters believe there was such a widespread programme of ‘state multiculturalism’
, and they rather interpret the word in terms of basic respect for their beliefs.
This suggests that BME concern about the right’s view of diversity is not solely limited to Enoch Powell’s speeches, but includes the lack of Conservative support for the 1965, 1968, 1976, 2000 race relations legislation, and of an inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, all passed by Labour governments.
This is certainly not to say that Labour (or Liberal Democrat) politicians have always avoided racially charged language, that Labour governments have done enough to reduce ethnic inequalities, nor that all Conservatives have been against such legislation, but it does indicate why rejecting Enoch may not be enough to convince BME voters to support the Conservatives (or UKIP).
Politicians now affirm that intolerance and racism have declined in Britain. On the one hand, they say that Britain has had a more comprehensive set of multicultural policies than European counterparts throughout the 1980s and 1990s, while at the same time they suggest that Britain is a more tolerant society where ethnic minorities are better integrated. But if we should have rejected mulitculturalism all along, shouldn’t we should have expected better integration in France or Italy or other countries that have rejected multiculturalism in favour of a colourblind approach?
Right-leaning politicians may feel comfortable in going beyond a rejection of Enoch and also recognise their errors in failing to support anti-discrimination legislation and declaring Nelson Mandela a terrorist.
However, it will obviously be more challenging for them to suggest that they were wrong in the 1980s and 1990s regarding whatever multicultural policies they feel were a cause of segregation. All voters, however, associate the word ‘multiculturalism’ with what they view as uncontroversial (and relatively minor) moves to recognise the value of different cultural contributions to British life. Indeed, according to Conservative Home 71% of Conservative voters support multiculturalism
Interestingly in the Liberal Democrat and indeed the Labour party seem to agree now with the Conservatives
that whatever value in multicultural policies in the 1980s and 1990s in welcoming migrants and their children, these have now gone too far. This suggests a line all parties might adopt: yes, some such policies were important for the first generation of migrants, who were a smaller minority and needed greater support as well as protection from explicit racism, but no, these should not be further adopted in 2015 and beyond, when such racism has been eliminated and where some groups need to integrate better.
This argument may appeal to some BME voters, particularly better off and longer-term settled populations. However, evidence continues to show significant ethnic inequalities and racial discrimination in Britain, whether in terms of employment, access to services, or indeed being abused on the street and on public transport merely because of the colour of your skin. Integration measures also generally find widespread affirmation of a British identity and values among BME people living here. At the same time, a clear majority of BME people – including nearly three-quarters of black Caribbean people – feel that discrimination persists in Britain, with more than a third (36%) reporting a personal experience of it.
Continuing evidence of ethnic inequalities makes it difficult for parties simply to reject Enoch, to accept some ‘multicultural’ policies of the past, and to advocate for colour-blind policies now. Such policies can in fact increase ethnic inequalities, whether adopted by the current coalition government or by Labour-led local authorities: 40% of those affected by the benefit cap are BME families; only 10% of apprenticeships go to BME candidates despite them being 26% of applicants;
while policies to eliminate translation services will result in older people unable to speak English having worse health outcomes and dying younger
because of their inability to access health services.
These policies indicate why many so-called ‘colourblind’ policies not only fail to eliminate ethnic inequalities, but instead increase them. This is, of course, not true of all such policies, but a predisposition not to consider race at all will make it less likely that they are delivered in a way that closes the 12% employment gap, or the gaps in access to universities even where BME students have equivalent A-level results.
And so the line that we can both reject Enoch and reject a focus on race today is unlikely to benefit ethnic minorities or to win their political support.
It is of course true that public attitudes on race have improved, and that the explicit street violence of the past has been much reduced – though more than 120 BME people have been murdered since the death of Stephen Lawrence.
Yet this focus on public or individual attitudes and behaviours doesn’t really address whether Britain’s institutions treat everyone fairly. There appears now to be a gap n the perception of institutional fairness between white British and BME people; less than one-quarter of white British people believe the government should do more in terms of equal opportunities for BME people, compared to almost three-quarters of BME people agreeing
But whatever the political calculations and public rhetoric about race, if we actually want to see racial equality in Britain, we must not only reject Enoch, but also the notion that race can never be considered in the design and delivery of policy. It’s not just public attitudes that need to change, but the practices of British institutions, public and private, and ignoring race will fail to benefit a third and fourth generation of British-born BME people just as it failed to help their grandparents when threatened in the streets by supporters of Enoch.