Now that the die has been cast by Theresa May for this unexpected election, all bets are on for how big a majority the Conservatives will win by. But with Brexit firmly on the agenda there is a lot at stake in these elections. The Lord Ashcroft polls in 2016 told us a lot about how different segments of the population voted for Brexit, but less about how ethnic minorities voted. But their vote was important back then as it will be now. This is because the black and ethnic minority population in the UK have not only grown substantially in size since the 1991 Census (their numbers have doubled), but they are spreading out across more areas. Their votes will count in more constituencies than ever before. But the problem is they do not have the same voting patterns as white British voters, and they do not vote as a homogenous group.
In the 1997 elections, Labour averaged around 80 percent share of the black and minority ethnic vote, but this has dwindled with every passing election and is now just 68 percent. That is still nearly three times the share of BME votes for the Conservatives, but the climb from 16 per cent of the BME vote for the Conservatives in 2010 to around 25 per cent in 2015 suggests that the Tories are steadily catching up, as they seek to finally bury the image of Enoch Powell.
Yet with the ethnic minority population rising rapidly across Britain it is clear that the “BME vote” is up for grabs. With Theresa May’s party eating into the working class and “left behind” vote, and Nicola Sturgeon already having polished off Labour’s vote north of Hadrian’s Wall, Jeremy Corbyn can ill afford to lose more ground on the ethnic minority vote.
But it won’t be easy, because not only are traditional voting patterns among black and ethnic minority groups changing quickly, but they are also no longer voting as a homogenous group. Traditional party loyalties are becoming increasingly severed.
The BME vote for Labour and the Conservatives is split by ethnicity, faith, class and region. Labour is more popular with black and Muslim voters (around two-thirds of black and Muslim groups supported Labour) but slightly less popular among the Asians, and specifically the Indian Sikhs and Hindus, around half of whom voted for David Cameron last time around. An increasingly important mixed-race vote is roughly divided half red, a quarter blue and quarter for the minority parties.
And the 2015 elections showed that support for Labour among BME groups was high in the North, the Midlands and in London, but weaker in the South – particularly in southern marginals, such as in Milton Keynes and Watford. But at the same time Labour were increasing their support in many of the most diverse seats in the country, while the Tories were dragging behind, with the exception of Harrow East and Hendon.
This is problematic for Labour. Polling suggests that where ethnic minority communities are most concentrated, Labour are making their safe seats safer still, but are failing to appeal to growing BME populations in less diverse marginal seats, where those BME communities could make a difference to the outcome. The Conservatives, on the other hand are making some in-roads in the most diverse seats (not enough), but able to capitalise on the BME votes in the less diverse seats. This is because while the BME population is, on average, poorer than the white British population, some groups, notably the Indians and the Chinese, are increasingly more middle-class than their ethnic minority peers and more likely to live in suburbs and vote Conservative, like their neighbours.
Class and educational level is usually a good predictor of voting behaviour among the white British population, but this pattern does not apply in the same way with BME groups. Most African, Caribbean and Muslim voters, for instance, appear to vote for Labour regardless of social class. A breakdown of the EU referendum by ward level, similarly showed that while lower qualifications was a strong predictor of the Leave vote, this link did not apply in the same way to the third of Asians who voted Leave particularly in the London and some of the West Midland areas.
In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that the smaller political parties, notably the Greens, have made big advancements with their ethnic minority vote share by appealing to young BME and growing mixed heritage groups.
Where BME voter patterns become particularly convoluted is around the issue of political priorities. This is because polls have shown that ethnic minorities have similar political priorities to their white British peers – economy, immigration, law and order – but greater differences in their priorities about unemployment and discrimination. The evidence suggests that ethnic minorities have distinctive political concerns around safety and security in their everyday lives compared to their white peers.
The key to political integration is the extent to which BME voters feel represented by the British political system and feel that their grievances are being heard. But here the record is mixed. We have more diverse MPs than ever before, yet voter turnout rates remain shockingly low. The 2010 EMBES study showed that 78 percent of ethnic minorities were registered to vote compared to 90 percent of their white counterparts. And only 59 percent of Black Africans were registered to point. This points to a democratic deficit that British politics needs to address.
So while voting patterns among the BME populations suggests that partisan loyalties are shifting, it’s probably not as dramatic as we think. But the evidence suggests that appealing to ethnic minorities will not be a straightforward task for Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens who all publish “BME manifestos”. Yes, parties can create policies that address common BME concerns around discrimination and disproportionate unemployment, but they will also need a more nuanced and tailored strategy that takes into account more upwardly mobile ethnic minorities.
A more racially-diverse national image helps, but political campaigning built on insight into the dynamics of each community may reap greater rewards than a blanket approach that treats all ethnic minorities as if they were one homogenous group that all think alike.
Dr Zubaida Haque is a research Associate at the Runnymede Trust.