David Cameron inspects the kitchen and meets the chefs at the British curry awards at Battersea Evolution in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As ethnic minorities grow, politicians need a less crude approach to attracting them

All parties should take a step back and appreciate the significant differences between these communities.

People from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds are already a major part of Britain’s fabric, and are likely to make up almost a third of the population by 2050. But in spite of repeated references, the mythical "ethnic minority community" simply does not exist. As Henry Kissinger once remarked of Europe – there is nobody to call if you want to speak to "ethnic minorities". 

It is clearly not the case that Britain’s ethnic minorities hold similar views or live similar lives. Yet political parties and others often assume they can appeal to all minorities in similar fashion. Whether in formulating policy or attracting votes, it is important to understand the diversity between, and often within, these increasingly significant communities.

This is no small task. Today, there are at least five major BME groups in the UK: Indian, Pakistani, black African, black Caribbean and Bangladeshi. The Chinese community is smaller but growing fast.  Added to this are communities that might self-identify together and share aspirations, for example Jews or Sikhs. Cutting across these distinct groups is the UK’s fastest-growing minority community, the mixed population, which is already the second largest group of all.  It was fitting, then, that a mixed race family starred in the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, and that Jessica Ennis became the face of our sporting success.

On almost any dimension, these ethnic groups are different: in their origins, geography, mobility, economic activity, health outcomes, educational attainment, household composition and political activity.  Even when it comes to religion – the area where minorities are most often assumed to be similar – there are notable variations between communities. Indians and black Africans are two to three times more likely to say religion makes little or no difference to their lives compared with other groups. And it is black Caribbeans who attend religious services the most often.

These differences are important for politicians to bear in mind. Policies affecting children will disproportionately impact Pakistani communities, where almost 70 per cent of all households contain dependent children. In contrast, policies affecting retirees will most affect the black Caribbean community, who have been in the UK longest. The black community will be acutely sensitive to policies affecting  social housing or lone parents; the Indian community most impacted by policy affecting home owners.

The tendency of minorities to cluster together in a particular industry means small changes in just one sector of the economy can be felt across an entire ethnic population. Large numbers (24 per cent) of Pakistani men work as taxi-drivers, and almost half of Bangladeshi men work in restaurants. Furthermore, Pakistanis are often self-employed and almost half of all employed Bangladeshis work part-time. So changes in specific tax policy or particular employment laws can have a large impact on these communities.          

With very young populations, minorities account for almost a third of all primary school pupils. Indians are a success story at almost every level, from Key Stage 1 to university admission.  However, the improvements amongst Bangladeshi students are less well known. Over the past few years, the percentage of Bangladeshi students obtaining five A*-C grades at GCSE (including Maths and English) has risen by half to 62 per cent. Therefore, from a poor start, Bangladeshis are now the second best performing ethnic group (and notably ahead of their white peers). 

Policymakers would do well to study this success story to see what lessons can be applied more broadly. Improvement was possible in spite of many Bangladeshi students receiving free school meals; and, with a quarter of the UK’s Bangladeshi population living in just two London boroughs, it is likely a small number of identifiable schools made the difference.

Perhaps fittingly, one of the few common traits amongst minorities is their shared sense of "British-ness".  Almost all ethnic minorities have a much stronger commitment to the notion of "British-ness" than their white peers and feel it is an important part of their identity. In contrast, the white population prefers to identify itself with the individual home countries and "being British" appears to be much less important to them.  

Ethnic minorities are already having an impact on UK elections and their influence will become more significant as time passes. Old voting habits may become more fluid and BME populations are young with lots of new voters. Similarly, as the many BME groups come to represent a larger proportion of the UK population, attracting voters from diverse ethnic backgrounds will soon become as fundamental to winning elections as attracting both male and female voters. But as politicians scramble to win the votes of ethnic minority individuals, they should first take a step back and appreciate the significant differences between these communities. The first political party to develop this more sophisticated understanding will be better placed to engage minorities, address their needs and ultimately be rewarded with their votes.

Rishi Sunak is head of Policy Exchange’s new Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Research Unit and the co-author of Policy Exchange’s report A Portrait of Modern Britain

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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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