Race Matters

Chuka Umunna is right: Labour cannot be complacent about BME support

Runnymede’s director Dr Omar Khan writes about BME people in politics. This article was first published on Left Foot Forward

The shock result of the 2015 General Election led to reflection not only on the accuracy of political polling, but also on how different groups in society vote. Chuka Umunna suggested that the 2015 election showed Labour losing ‘millions’ of ethnic minority voters and that the party was taking such voters for granted.

Historically Labour has won very large majorities among ethnic minority voters, up to 90 per cent in the 1980-1990s. In the 2010 Election, 68 per cent of Black and minority ethnic (BME) voters supported Labour and only 16 per cent voted Conservative.

Umunna’s concern is, however, reflected both in terms of political outreach – where BME voters are less likely to hear political party messages – and in terms of BME political attitudes.

According to the best survey of ethnic minority political attitudes and behaviour available, the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES), the average BME voter was closer to the Conservative party on the two main cleavages of British politics: attitudes to tax and expenditure; and attitudes to civil liberties and criminal justice.

Yet despite this seeming disinterest in greater redistribution or in more liberal criminal justice policies, ethnic minorities still preponderantly voted Labour. Why?

The main reason appears to be because of the lingering ‘toxicity’ of the Tory brand among ethnic minority voters, notably exemplified by Enoch Powell, Conservative opposition to the various race relations acts, and more recently Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’.

Strikingly, in 2010 ethnicity was a stronger predictor of vote choice than social class. The continued tension explains why the influential website Conservative Home has questioned whether David Cameron was wise to attack ‘multiculturalism’.

Turning to Umunna’s first point, however, Labour still appeared to be the predominant first choice among BME voters in 2015. Runnymede analysed the vote swings in the UK’s 75 most diverse seats, which together account for half of the BME population (4 million out of 8 million).

In these seats the Labour vote went up 8.4 per cent, the Conservative vote down very slightly (-0.2 per cent), and the Liberal Democrats down by -14.9 per cent. In other words, in the most diverse seats where half of Britain’s ethnic minorities live, the Labour share actually went up in 2010 with no Conservative breakthrough at all.

Umunna’s speech appears to be based on an internet poll done by Survation for the respected think tank British Future. All polls are now subject to serious scepticism, but is it really sensible to suggest a poll underestimates the Labour party vote share?

As the University of Manchester academics Rob Ford and Maria Sobolewska explain, to assess this poll, and any ‘collapse’ in Labour support, we need to compare how internet polling methods reported on the 2010 and 2015 election results respectively.

In 2010, YouGov suggested that 28 per cent of ethnic minorities supported the Conservatives and that 45 per cent supported Labour, results out of line with the much larger representative sample in EMBES (16 per cent Conservative, 68 per cent Labour).

In 2015, the same YouGov poll found a 3 per cent rise in support for the Conservatives (putting them on 31 per cent), but also a 4 per cent rise in Labour support (49 per cent), indicating that the Labour lead was precisely the same in 2015 as in 2010. This suggests the Labour party still receives over 60 per cent of the BME vote, and the Conservatives around 25 per cent.

So where does this leave the Labour (and Conservative) party?

First, Umunna and others are right that the ‘ethnic minority vote’ is now more up for grabs. With their much younger average age, Labour can’t rely on an anti-Conservative ethnic minority voter attitude forever.

Second, the ‘ethnic minority’ vote is now much more varied. It’s probably more correct to say that David Cameron’s Conservatives made a breakthrough among middle-class Indian voters and other professionals, voters who were already the most likely to vote Conservative.

Third, the Labour party may need to refocus its outreach work. In 2015 the Conservatives produced a Hindi video and visited scores of Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwaras and other community centres, and also the UK’s largest inter-denominational Christian gathering of 45,000 people, organised by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), a church founded in Nigeria.

Fourth, the increased Labour vote share in diverse constituencies is both a sign of strength and possible future weakness. As Runnymede has previously explained, in 1991 there were only seven constituencies in which more than 40 per cent of the population was BME. There are now 49 such seats, of which Labour hold 47, and these are only likely to grow further.

While in 2001, only 57 seats had a BME population of 25 per cent or more, by 2021 at least 130 seats (including Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Golders Green) – a fifth of the total – are estimated to have a BME population of 25 per cent or more, seats where even a slight Labour preference may deliver them a majority.

But while it is true that more seats will become very diverse in the coming decades, more people from ethnic minorities are also becoming better off and moving to the suburbs and rural areas, where they may be more likely to vote Conservative as do their white British neighbours.

Fifth, and lastly, Labour must also focus on what has delivered them BME majorities in the past, while the Conservatives must attend carefully to keep and grow their existing support among these voters.

In the 2010 EMBES survey and other evidence, ethnic minorities expressed a concern about the fairness of British institutions and racial discrimination, particularly in employment. David Cameron has recognised this challenge by committing to increasing BME job opportunities, although these commitments appear less ambitious on closer inspection.

Yet the Labour opposition hasn’t highlighted these weaknesses, nor effectively challenged the government on how the 2015 Summer Budget or indeed university maintenance grants will increase racial inequalities. It’s hard not to conclude that neither of the main parties is doing much proactively to respond to the concerns of BME voters, even as their vote is increasingly up for grabs.

As with all voters, ethnic minorities expect policies that actually respond to their needs and preferences, without which targeted outreach only becomes so many warm words heard before.


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