Written by:
Omar Khan

One Nation Boris? Not for black or Asian Londoners

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In the run up to his likely inauguration as Tory leader and, therefore, UK Prime Minister this week, our Director Dr Omar Khan examines how little Boris Johnson's mayoral campaign resonated with ethnic minority Londoners.

Image: Clem Onojeghuo at Unsplash

How do we know if someone is a ‘One Nation’ Conservative, prepared to invest in the ordinary people, inclusive of everyone in society? Boris Johnson’s supporters in the Conservative party and the media are insistent that he is a man of the people, while his critics point to a litany of are-you-sure-those-aren’t-racist comments.

Instead, if we are interested in someone's genuine credentials as anti-racist, we should focus on actions and outcomes. In the case of Boris Johnson, one rich source of outcomes are his election results as London Mayor. Especially given that his victories among the capital’s diverse electorate are cited as evidence of his diverse appeal, it’s worth examining how black and minority ethnic Londoners actually voted.

One important caveat and a consequent plea prefaces this analysis: there are no good ethnicity breaks from pollsters. It is disappointing enough that ethnicity is not regularly provided in national polls and surveys where smaller demographic variables (those who are 18-24, those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2017, those who live in Scotland) are included. But not providing ethnicity breaks in London, where 40% of the population is black or minority ethnic (BME), and where ethnicity is a stronger predictor of vote choice than class, education or age, suggests that pollsters are simply not doing their jobs.

How did black and minority ethnic Londoners vote in 2012?

The main data source we can examine is how people actually voted in 2012, Johnsons’s last mayoral campaign, by borough- and ward-level. There are 32 boroughs (plus the City of London) with around 60,000-100,000 voters, while electoral wards usually had around 3000 total votes. We also have ethnicity data for each borough and ward. So we can look at whether the boroughs and wards with the most BME voters were more or less likely to vote for Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone.

A simple analysis shows the direct and very strong correlation between the number of ethnic minority people in a borough and ward and their vote share for Ken Livingstone. There are some exceptions, but the trend line is very clear and statistically significant. The more ethnic minority voters, the fewer votes Boris Johnson won.

Such a correlation is perhaps unsurprising. Nationally the Conservative Party has always trailed Labour among ethnic minority voters, by 68%-16% in 2010 and by 77%-20% in 2017. And London Labour mayoral candidates have always beaten their Conservative opponents in these wards. So the question arises: did Boris Johnson do better or worse than expected as a Conservative? Was he really viewed by BME voters as a ‘one nation’ Conservative?

A good way to answer this question is to compare how Boris Johnson did compared to Zac Goldsmith in 2016. Goldsmith lost the election badly, doing the worst of any Conservative mayoral candidate since elections began, while Johnson is the only Conservative candidate to win the capital’s mayoralty. On first preference votes across the capital, Johnson won 44%-40%, while Goldsmith got 9% fewer first preference votes, losing 44%-35%, setting a benchmark to evaluate how a ‘one nation’ Conservative might be expected to do. Furthermore, Goldsmith ran what Conservative colleagues acknowledged was a ‘dog whistle’ campaign, so we would expect Johnson to out-perform Goldsmith in the wards and boroughs with the most BME voters.

How did BME voters react to Boris Johnson compared to Zac Goldsmith?

The results in fact show the opposite. The correlation between ethnic minority voting and Conservative party vote support was weaker for Zac Goldsmith than for Boris Johnson. That is, relatively speaking, Zac Goldsmith did better than Boris Johnson in the wards and boroughs with the most ethnic minority voters.

We can drill down further, examining those wards not just with the most BME voters, but with the most black voters, the most Indian or, using a different category, the most Muslim voters. An important caveat is necessary: there are no electoral wards where any single ethnic minority group is even half of the overall population; the largest such share is 47%. In other words, London is actually a very ‘integrated’ city, even at a local neighbourhood level. London’s low level of segregation is positive socially and politically, but it makes analysis of electoral outcomes by borough or ward somewhat less reliable, given the very large number of white British voters in even the most ‘diverse’ neighbourhoods.

Where did Boris Johnson do worst?

Turning first to the wards with the most black voters, including both Caribbean and African people. These are among the wards where Boris Johnson did worst. In Peckham, the only UK ward with 50% black people, Johnson got just 12.9% of the vote vs 78.2% for Ken Livingstone. Among those wards with a large number of black people, Johnson’s worst performance was in Coldharbour, where he got just 11% of the vote, his 3rd lowest total among London’s 627 electoral wards. In every borough – Brent, Southwark, Lambeth, Hackney, Croydon – the same story holds: Johnson did worst, and Livingstone best, in the wards with the most black people, often below 15-20% of the vote.

Anyone paying attention to Johnson’s public statements (or his novel, Seventy-Two Virgins) will know his many anti-black comments. Whatever excuses or explanations or apologies for those words, London’s black voters were especially unlikely to support him at the ballot box. Another group Johnson is widely known to target are Muslims. As with Black groups, the numbers of Muslims in a ward doesn’t usually exceed 50% (and this obviously includes Black Muslims) but again we can compare how Johnson did in these wards compared his vote share overall or in neighbouring wards, and how he did compared to Zac Goldsmith, whose campaign against Sadiq Khan seem designed to do poorly among British Muslim voters.

Muslim voters in London

In Green Street East, the ward with the most Muslim residents, Johnson got an even lower vote share than in Coldharbour, 10.5%: his 2nd lowest vote share of any of London ward. Johnson’s worst vote share was 10.4% in East Ham North, which has the 7th most Muslim voters among the capital’s 627 wards. In the three wards with the most Muslim voters, Johnson actually did worse than Zac Goldsmith. It’s worth keeping in mind how Goldsmith targeted Sadiq Khan personally for his ‘associations’ with ‘extremist’ Muslims, but also that Khan still got fewer votes than Livingstone in the wards with most Muslim voters. Muslim voters weren’t voting on the basis of mere ‘identity politics’, therefore, and were even less likely to think that Boris Johnson could understand or represent their interests than could Zac Goldsmith.

Indian voters in London

Some will perhaps ask: Johnson may have been unpopular with BME voters overall, and black and Muslim voters particularly, but what about Indian voters? Didn’t he do well among them? Here again the evidence seems to go against Johnson, in a context where nationally the Conservative Party does relatively better with Indian voters compared to other ethnic minority voters (though Labour still does better), and where they are able to win seats such as Harrow East.

In fact, Boris Johnson generally lost the wards with the most Indian voters, with Livingstone getting more votes in 11 of the 13 wards with the most Indian voters. Johnson did win the ward with the most Indian voters, Kenton West, by 49%-39%, though this was still lower than Goldsmiths 52%-33% win in 2016. The other ward he won was Kenton, where he won more convincingly at 57%-33%. However looking at the wards with the 2nd and 3rd most Indian voters indicates Johnson’s relative weakness even among Indian voters: he lost Southall Green 81.4%-12.1% and Southall Broadway 82.4%-11.5%. These are wards with large Sikh populations, and indicate the need to distinguish between Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Indian voters. However, Johnson also lost and underperformed in wards with a large number of Hindu voters, such as Wembley Central (losing by 40 points), Alperton (-36 in the ward with the most Hindus), Heston Central and Hounslow Central (by over 20 points)

What the evidence tells us?

The evidence from the London mayoral election is clear. Boris Johnson did extremely poorly with ethnic minority voters and worse, relatively, than Zac Goldsmith. This provides a possible hint about why Goldsmith ran such a ‘dog whistle’ campaign in 2016: that there were few ethnic minority, and particularly Muslim voters to lose, which, if true, is a worrying sign that the party might have given up on winning their votes in London, and possibly nationally.

A final piece of evidence on ethnic minority voting in London is worth considering, namely Johnson’s current constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. This has historically been a safe Conservative seat, but as with other London constituencies changed demographics have altered the political leanings in the seat. While Johnson still won his seat in 2017, his majority was reduced to 5,000 votes, and the Labour candidate’s vote share went up 13.6%. Over the period of 2001 to 2011, the BME population grew from 14.6% to 30.1%. Historically the Conservative party has struggled to retain seats once they hit 30% BME population, even where those seats were previously viewed as ‘safe’. If Johnson cannot overturn his previous weakness among BME Londoners, and if he’s unable to outperform the average Conservative candidate, the chances are he will lose his seat, in the following if not the next election.

Instead of debating whether particular comments about watermelon smiles, piccaninnies, letterboxes, or ‘part Kenyan ancestral dislike’ were in fact racist, we can establish that Johnson did much worse in the wards with the most BME voters.

People can support or vote for Boris Johnson for whatever reason they wish. They can argue he can best deliver Brexit, a national election win against Jeremy Corbyn, or that they believe he’s a ‘One Nation’ Conservative. But their beliefs aren’t decisive, and ‘One Nation’ implies doing better, not worse, than other Conservative candidates among BME voters. Even in 2019 the facts matter, and the facts are that black and minority ethnic Londoners have strongly rejected Boris Johnson for over a decade.

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