Charles McQuillan / Stringer / Getty
Show Hide image

Is Labour losing the ethnic minority vote?

Labour should not ignore the electoral gains that a higher ethnic minority turnout could bring.

When Labour was eviscerated in 2010, Gordon Brown’s party still received 68 per cent of the ethnic minority vote. Much Labour optimism is founded upon this statistic: the ethnic minority vote has risen since, making it a powerful obstacle to a second term for David Cameron.

But the problem for Labour is that, while many ethnic minorities still loathe the Conservative party, they are increasingly lukewarm to Labour. Since 1997, the percentage of ethnic minority voters identifying with the party has collapsed, as findings from the University of Manchester’s Maria Sobolewska bluntly spell out.

In 1997, 77 per cent of Indian voters identified with the Labour Party. Today the figure is just 45 per cent.* With other ethnic minorities the trend is the same, even if it is less dramatic: the percentage of Pakistani voters identifying with Labour has fallen from 79 to 54 per cent; and the percentage of African voters identifying with Labour has fallen from 79 to 59.

(Click on graph to enlarge)

All of this presents an opportunity for the Conservatives. There are modest signs that the party has made progress with the Indian vote: 18 per cent of Indian voters today identify with the Tories. But, when it comes to other ethnic minorities, the Conservative position is uniformly bleak: four per cent of Pakistani and black Caribbean voters identify with the party, and nine per cent of black Africans do so.

These statistics will comfort Labour, showing that the Tories’ 50-year race problem remains a drag on the party. But, even if it is not clear that any other parties are making an attractive pitch to ethnic minorities, Labour should still beware. The gains that Ukip has made in Labour’s northern heartlands shows how rapidly core voters can desert a party if they feel like they are being ignored. “The only thing now keeping minorities on side with Labour is the lack of alternatives,” says Maria Sobolewska.

Just 5.8 per cent of Labour MPs are from ethnic minorities, compared with 13 per cent of the population in the 2011 census. Labour is showing no great urgency to address this under-representation. Of the 34 Labour candidates selected in seats in which Labour MPs are stepping down, just one is from an ethnic minority, prompting David Lammy to warn that Labour was, “in danger of looking incredibly complacent” in taking ethnic minority votes for granted.

A paucity of ethnic minority MPs is not the only evidence of this. In 2010, an ethnic minority voter was half as likely to be canvassed by Labour as a white British one. By neglecting to woo ethnic minorities, Labour is missing out on thousands of votes. While the party is trying to increase turnout among young people, it seems to have given less attention to ethnic minorities – even though 19 per cent were not registered to vote in 2010, compared with seven per cent of the white British population.

But electoral history suggests that ethnic minorities are far more likely to vote for Labour than under-25s are. A higher ethnic minority turnout could provide Labour with a big electoral bounty: in 2015, there will be 50 Conservative seats where Labour is second and the BME vote is larger than the Conservative majority. But Labour cannot expect anti-Tory feeling to be motivation enough for ethnic minorities to go to the ballot box.

*The figure is different to the 18 per cent cited in the British Election Studies presentation due to an error I found.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496