Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
David Cameron achieved something unprecedented at this General Election. He became the first Prime Minister for a century to improve his party’s vote share as well as its total vote after governing for a full term. The Conservatives took 11.3 million votes compared to 10.7 million five years earlier – so expanding the Conservative electoral tent despite losing perhaps 1.5 million of his 2010 voters to UKIP. So how did the Prime Minister manage to put his new Conservative majority together?
The stealthy destruction of the Liberal Democrats across southern England was key to David Cameron’s victory. But a further significant contribution also came from the party’s strongest ever performance with ethnic minority voters. The first full survey of how ethnic minorities voted in 2015 suggests that David Cameron secured up to a million ethnic minority votes for the Conservatives, performing especially strongly with Asian voters, particularly Hindus, and ethnic minority voters in southern England.
The 2000-strong poll of ethnic minority voters by Survation for British Future is the first full-scale survey of how non-white Britain voted in the General Election. It shows that Labour won the largest share of the ethnic minority vote on 52 per cent with the Conservatives on 33 per cent. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens secured five per cent each while UKIP, on two per cent, had a much weaker appeal to ethnic minorities, winning one in 50 votes compared to their one in six share among white Britons.
Though 60,000 ethnic minority Britons did vote for the purple party, the result suggests that over 3.8 million (98 per cent) of UKIP’s 3.88 million votes came from white voters.
The survey finds increasing differentiation within the ethnic minority vote. Labour had a much stronger lead with black voters – by 67 per cent to 21 per cent – while the Conservatives took 38 per cent of the Asian vote with Labour on 50 per cent.
British Muslims voted Labour by 64 per cent to 25 per cent and ethnic minority Christians lent left by 56 per cent to 31 per cent, while the Conservatives led with Hindus – by 49 per cent to 41 per cent – and also with the very small sample of Sikh respondents to the survey.
The new research also suggests a significant regional dimension to the ethnic minority vote in 2015. Labour retains a considerably stronger lead in the North (60 per cent to 26 per cent) and Midlands (60 per cent to 28 per cent) but the parties were close to neck-and-neck in southern England, where the Conservatives took 40 per cent to Labour’s 43 per cent. Labour’s share of minority votes in London was 54%, with the Conservatives winning just over one in three votes (34 per cent).
With polling under scrutiny, even such a large-scale survey conducted straight after the election could be treated with a degree of caution. There has been little hard information about the ethnic minority vote during the election campaign and further research would be welcome.
These results do, however, follow the pattern of British Election Study research showing a decline in ethnic minorities’ identification with Labour and some Conservative advance, with at least some minority groups. British voters have become much less partisan over recent decades. It could now be that ethnic minorities are joining the rest of the electorate in being more likely to think of themselves as swing voters, with their votes increasingly ‘up for grabs’ during election campaigns.
Overall, ethnic minority voters remain an area of comparative strength for Labour. But the party’s future challenge goes beyond facing increasing competition for ethnic minority votes. It may also be winning minority votes in the wrong places to make a difference in electoral terms, advancing in safe seats while slipping in marginals.
The Runnymede Trust note that around half of the ethnic minority population live in seats that are more than one-third ethnic minority, while half do not. In the most ethnically diverse seats, the Labour vote went up. Yet the Conservatives appear increasingly confident of competing for minority votes in areas of above average ethnic diversity, particularly in areas where the voters have felt the benefits of economic recovery.
In Watford, where a quarter of voters are non-white, the Conservative vote was up nine per cent, turning a three-way marginal in 2010 into a majority of nearly 10,000. The increased Conservative vote in increasingly ethnically mixed towns such as Bedford, Crawley, Milton Keynes, Reading, Swindon and Wycombe suggest a similar story.
In those places where Labour leadership candidates are wondering about whether their party speaks to aspiration, that might be a challenge that the left faces with ethnic minority voters in particular.
For Conservatives, these results will certainly be encouraging. Earlier British Future research suggested that the party suffered from an ‘ethnic minority vote gap’ of half a million votes in 2010. That gap may have closed entirely with British Indian voters, though it remains an issue for the party with other Asian and black voters.
There has been much discussion of whether ‘shy Tories’ or reluctant Conservatives decided the election. As Daniel Finkelstein has suggested, “it is wrong to think of them as Tories. These are people who just want a moderate, competent government which keeps the economy on track. One which ensures that there are decent public services that don’t cost the earth”. Many voters who thought the economy was the biggest issue, and David Cameron the better leader, followed that logic to find themselves voting for the Conservative Party, sometimes to their own surprise.
If the ethnic minority vote is increasingly up for grabs, then a Labour party with a stronger appeal on the economy or leadership would be hopeful of winning it back.
It will have helped the Conservatives that the campaign focused on the issues that mattered most to these voters, like the economy, and did not focus heavily on immigration, where switchers to the Conservatives – whether ethnic minorities or Liberal Democrats – take a more open view than those voters the party lost to UKIP.
Ethnic minority voters were not attracted to Nigel Farage’s party. They would like immigration managed well and might prefer the numbers to come down a bit but, overall, see immigration as economically and culturally beneficial, as research from Bright Blue and the British Social Attitudes survey shows. Maybe it even helped with the Conservatives’ historic ‘baggage’ from the era of Enoch Powell that the echoes of those arguments in the politics of 2015 were not coming from the Conservatives, but from their populist rivals.
The Prime Minister has built a new Conservative emerging majority coalition – and this new research suggests that many ethnic minorities, especially British Asians, were part of it. But the overriding message for the political parties is that all of the votes could be up for grabs in a diverse Britain. There is no reason to think that demography must define political destiny.