Is Labour losing the ethnic minority vote?

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

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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.

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