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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.

All parties should take a step back and appreciate the significant differences between these communities.
David Cameron inspects the kitchen and meets the chefs at the British curry awards at Battersea Evolution in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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