In an election with the greatest uncertainty of outcome in living memory, the voting behaviour of different groups in the UK could have a decisive impact on the outcome. In Race and Elections, Runnymede has gathered together influential academics’ analysis on the role of race, ethnicity and religion in this and previous elections.
For decades black and minority ethnic (BME) voting patterns have not been a high priority for political parties and the wider public. The first BME MP
(Dadabhai Naoroji) was voted in for the constituency of Finsbury Central more than 120 years ago and yet there has been comparatively little progress in this time for BME politicians and voters alike. Nevertheless as Race and Elections
makes clear, there are historically important trends around the relationship between race, ethnicity and mainstream politics – notably the electoral weakness of the far right and the dominance of the Labour party among BME voters – that continue to exert significant influence over election outcomes, in 2015 and beyond.
In recent years the changing demographic profile of Britain’s BME populations has seen a shift in their importance in electoral politics for all parties. In particular the rate of growth in the ethnic minority population has been marked. From less than 5% nationally (3 million people) in 1991, the BME population in 2011 rose to 13% – at 8 million, equivalent to the combined population of Scotland and Wales.
Of course this population is not evenly spread, and so does not equally affect parliamentary constituencies across the UK. In 1991, there were only seven constituencies in which more than 40% of the population was black and minority ethnic. According to the 2011 Census there are now 49 such seats.
In 1992, therefore, the Conservatives could only lose seven seats by failing to win over many ethnic minority voters, but in 2010 and beyond, they could lose 50 or more. This is perhaps most striking in London, where the Conservatives won a commanding majority of seats up until 1992, but have seen previously safe seats become marginal. In Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley and Golders Green, the BME population is now 33%, compared to the national average of about 13%.
It is not just in cities such as London, Birmingham or Bradford, where the large BME population can influence who gets elected. There have been notable increases in suburbia and smaller university towns. In 1981, there were 50 seats with 15% BME residents. By 2011, there were 150 seats with 15% BME residents. Inside this 150 are seats such as Cambridge, Halifax, and Richmond Park (all 18%). Seats such as Beaconsfield, Gloucester, Ipswich, Cheadle, and Leamington and Warwick are just outside the 150 (all around 12%). For comparison of scale, the Labour Party target list for the 2015 General Election is 106 seats. The Conservative Party strategy for the 2015 General Election is to hold 40 marginals while gaining 40 marginals.
Furthermore, there are fewer seats where BME voters have no impact at all on election outcomes. As recently as 2001, around half of all seats had a
BME population of under 3%; in 2011 the equivalent seat had a BME population of 5-6%. These might not seem like large proportions, but in marginal seats with majorities in the thousands or hundreds, the BME vote will increasingly influence outcomes. Operation Black Vote research shows that there are now 167 seats where the BME population exceeds the current MP’s majority. Estimates also suggest that the rural BME population will double by 2050.
The increasing dispersal of the BME population is matched and partly driven by the increasing diversity within the BME population. While the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study showed that the larger ethnic minority groups continued to disproportionately (68%) support Labour, there were some signs of differences among some populations (notably middle-class Indians). The impact of more recent migrants is only beginning to be felt electorally.
What, then, are the parties doing about this? In the 2010 party manifestos, there was only one mention of race or race equality – a Liberal Democrat commitment to name-blind CVs, which was lost in the coalition bargaining. Under the coalition, race equality has not been directly addressed, and has even been rolled back, although we have of course witnessed the rise of immigration as arguably the most politically salient issue.
Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama’s success in building a winning coalition including large majorities of the rising ethnic minority vote has seen the
Republicans reach out again, especially to Latino voters, to neutralise what might become an inbuilt Democratic electoral advantage. Those familiar with
Canada will know that right-of-centre politicians have done much better in appealing to the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
While demographic change in the UK has been notable for a decade now, it has taken some time for political parties to catch up to this change. A key reason for this is that BME people compose a smaller share of the electorate than they do of the overall population, mainly because of the relatively younger age of BME residents in Britain, but also because of their lower registration rates
and entitlement to vote among some overseas citizens.
This lag in the full impact of BME voting power will soon change. Among the 60+ population, only 5% are BME, but of those under 18 more than 20% are BME. By 2020, 10% of the 60-64 population will be BME, and nearly 20% of those 40 and under. Partly in response to change, the Conservatives have dramatically increased their number of ethnic minority MPs and candidates in winnable seats, meaning that they will more or less match Labour’s total in 2015 from a base of none before 2005.
For the 2015 General Election, the three major parties made significantly greater commitments to addressing racial inequalities, or otherwise appealing to ethnic minority voters, in their respective manifestos than they had done in 2010. However, the Conservatives’ proposals are relatively limited, restricted to proposing an increase in the numbers of black and minority ethnic police officers, albeit through new recruitment schemes which don’t appear to target minorities.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto goes considerably further, with proposals to enact the remaining unimplemented clauses of the 2010 Equality Act, to promote BME entrepreneurship, and to monitor and tackle the BME pay gap – although there is no mention of the BME employment gap. It also proposes to tackle discrimination and ethnic inequalities within the criminal justice system and policing.
The Labour Party on the other hand has produced a separate BME manifesto which makes a wider range of commitments, including proposals for a cross-government race equality strategy as well as measures on the pay gap, long-term youth unemployment and hate crimes. It also refers to the need for the police and judiciary to represent the communities they serve, though the document is somewhat lacking in detail on how they will achieve all these objectives. It remains to be seen whether these commitments will be enough to convince BME voters in 2015, and whether these are the key concerns for the next generation of BME voters.
As with all voters, BME voters are motivated by their political attitudes and values. While many such attitudes are shared across ethnicity, two issues are distinctive for ethnic minority voters. First is that unemployment is a particularly notable concern, a fact that is less surprising given the higher rates and future risk of unemployment among all BME groups, from 16-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs), to Oxbridge graduates, to currently employed professionals. Second, all BME groups suggest they still feel racism affects their life chances, with more than a third of black Caribbean people reporting a personal experience of discrimination. This explains the focus in many contributors on discrimination and the continued effects of past party political responses to it.
Furthermore, there are concerns that Islamophobia has passed what Baroness Warsi called the ‘dinner table test’, and that anti-immigration rhetoric can allow for wider questioning about the place of black and minority ethnic people in the UK. In response to these concerns, the evidence presented in Race and Elections
indicates continuities with the past, as well as significant social change among the increasingly diverse black and minority ethnic population in Britain.
All the parties need to reconsider their strategies to respond this change, and whether their previous or current policies will be a barrier or incentive for BME voters in 2015 and beyond. Whatever the parties’ respective strategies for winning as many seats as possible in the uncertain election of 2015, if they wait till 2020 to develop a plan for the various black and minority ethnic groups living across the UK, it may be too late.