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BRIT Review

General Election 2015: The Ethnic Priority by Abigail Watson

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


For me, Holloway Lester, who recently led an Operation Black Vote (OBV) study into ethnic minority voting, perfectly captured the problem when he said: “ethnic minority voters have either been ignored by the conservatives or taken for granted to a certain extent by the Labour Party.” I believe political parties are still living in the past when, in fact, the ethnic minority community’s traditional hostility towards the Conservatives and unfettered commitment towards the Labour party is dwindling. I would give the 2015 election to the party that realises this.

Ethnic minority voting behaviour is increasingly important. In 2010, according to British Future, if the Conservative party had been able to appeal to ethnic minorities it could have achieved an outright majority. Now, OBV has shown the number of ethnic minority votes has grown by 70% since the last general election and there are 168 seats where the ethnic minority population is bigger than the winning margin of the sitting MP. Yet, historical preference has led political parties to consider their vote predetermined.

Labour's good reputation

Labour has traditionally been the obvious choice for ethnic minorities. It is the party responsible for all major legislation that has advanced or protected ethnic minority rights, from the Race Relations Act of 1965 to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006. 

Due to this Labour has fostered an image of itself as the party that helped ethnic minorities’ families establish themselves in Britain. Further, the political outlook of many ethnic minority voters is connected to class identity. When past generations of their family came to Britain they were often doing working class jobs and, thus, lived in working class areas and sometimes joined trade unions.

The Conservative's dire record

Conversely the Conservative party has traditionally been perceived as indifferent or even hostile, to the struggles of ethnic minorities. The 1964 general election campaign in Smethwick, Staffordshire (when supporters of the Conservative party used the slogan “if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”), Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in 1968 and the inadequate investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence under the Conservatives are all incidents that impact their image today.  I would agree with Anthony Wells, a pollster for YouGov, who said these events build “into an association that the Conservatives are not for people from ethnic minorities”.

Liberal Democrats barely making waves

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats do not seem to have held much sway on ethnic minorities either way. In the early 2000s the party the party claimed that the War on Terror and the increasing surveillance of the British Muslim population was turning ethnic minorities away from Labour and towards themselves. For example, 15% of its new members in 2003-4 were from ethnic minority groups. While for a short period this seemed true, the party received only 14% of the ethnic minority vote in 2010 and since – as with other voters – there has been a dramatic fall in support.  

Is Labour losing its grip?

Ethnic minority voting is increasingly volatile. While Labour’s proportion of the votes in 2010 was high – at 68% - the party is experiencing a steady decline in ethnic minority support. For example in 1997 77% of those from Indian descent identified with Labour but in 2014 just 19% did according to the British Election Study. Similarly, the number of people from Pakistani descent identifying with Labour has gone from 77% in 1997 to 57% now; while those of Caribbean descent has gone from 78% to 67%. Dr Maria Sobolewska, from the University of Manchester, warned "Labour is not really sitting pretty on ethnic minorities anymore and in fact it wasn't in 2010”. Similarly, Sadiq Khan, the MP who ran Ed Milliband’s leadership campaign, claimed the ethnic minority vote can no longer be taken for granted – citing the Bradford by-election in 2012 where Muslim voters turned away from Labour as they backed George Galloway’s Respect party.

Could the Conservatives turn the tide?

There are, possibly, signs that the Conservative’s dire record with ethnic minorities could change. Lord Ashcroft found in his investigation into ethnic minority voting behaviour in 2011 that two-thirds of Sikhs and Hindus thought “the Conservative Party used to be hostile or indifferent to people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, but the party is changing for the better” while fewer than one in ten ethnic minority voters thought Conservatives were “actively hostile towards them”. Further, Conservatives did well in 2010 among those from Indian roots and Asian families who fled persecution in east Africa four generations ago.

Are the Liberal Democrats losing a golden opportunity?

It seems to me that the Liberal Democrats could gain here as well. The trends seem to suggest that people are turning away from Labour quicker than they are turning towards the Conservatives. However, for the Liberal Democrats to benefit from this they have to work substantially with these ethnic minority communities.

I think Professor Anthony Heath captures the issue when he says "Minority voters can be won away from Labour, but only if you make active efforts". The party that realises this and focuses more on campaigning ethnic minorities will be electorally rewarded in May and the ones that do not will be losing out on thousands of votes that could make all the difference.

The BRIT POLITICS 2015 General Election Team - About Abigail

I am a 24-year-old Masters student of European and American politics at the University of Bath. I am originally from the Ribble Valley, Lancashire.

I have been interested in politics as long as I can remember but I think listening to my granddad’s political conspiracy theories over Sunday lunch was a contributing factor.

I will be closely following the 2015 General Election; I find the ethnic minority vote, as well as ethnic minority policy, particularly interesting and will be following this aspect very closely.

Find out more at our dedicated 2015 General Election pages


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