Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
The days of a one party monopoly on the ethnic minority vote are gone forever – almost certainly never to return. That one prediction at least can be made with confidence from British Future’s new research into the ethnic minority vote at the 2015 General Election, which otherwise suggests that the votes of ethnic minority Britons may be ever harder to predict in future General Elections. David Cameron’s 2015 majority victory saw the party’s strongest-ever performance among ethnic minority voters.
Survation’s poll for British Future put the Conservatives on 33 per cent with Labour on 52 per cent. Other data also points to a Conservative advance, though perhaps a more gradual one. The more detailed Survation findings, released today, confirm that an increasing number of ethnic minority citizens are floating voters, but also demonstrates that Labour continues to hold an overall advantage in reputation and reach among non-white voters.
Conservatives would be wise to understand that the task of showing that the party is open and inclusive remains a work in progress. Almost one in three (29 per cent) of ethnic minority voters who did not vote Tory say that they did consider supporting the party in 2015. At the same time, most (54 per cent) of those who did vote Conservative in 2015 say they could switch parties in future, as do 48 per cent of ethnic minority Labour voters.
So the Conservatives have a challenge in holding on to new support: many voters were backing David Cameron as Prime Minister, together with his economic record, and were perhaps surprised to find themselves voting for his party. Most ethnic minority Britons (54 per cent) believe that the Labour party tries to treat people from all ethnic backgrounds fairly – but only 29 per cent currently say that is true of the Conservative Party. Over a third (36 per cent) of non-white Britons say the Conservative Party has not yet done enough to reach out to ethnic minority voters, while only half as many (16 per cent) say this about Labour.
A small minority, though more than one in ten, think each of the parties pay too much attention to ethnic minorities – suggesting an aversion among some who see minority-specific political campaigning as putting people in pigeon-holes. Most ethnic minority voters (52 per cent) say that they had some contact from Labour during the 2015 General Election campaign, while 40 per cent recall contact from the Conservatives. This may partly reflect successful targeting in winning the votes that were needed, where they were needed; the Conservatives did contact over half of minority voters who went on to vote Conservative, while Labour reached six out of ten of its own supporters.
The next election may not only be an ever more competitive race for the minority vote – it may also see increasingly distinct pitches from each of the parties towards sections of the minority vote. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party may offer a more vocal anti-racist and pro-equality argument, which could resonate and reconnect with those who feel that Labour has slipped into seeing ethnic minorities as a ‘core vote’ that can be taken for granted. The new leader’s ambition to expand the electorate by appealing to non-voters should also pay attention to under-registration of ethnic minority voters, as well as among young people more generally, though the party will reap an electoral benefit only if this has an impact outside its inner city strongholds into marginal seats held by the Conservatives.
But there is also a very significant opportunity for the Conservative Party to seal the deal with its first-time ethnic minority voters of 2015. The party of George Osborne and Sajid Javid may well appeal more strongly to different non-white voters than Jeremy Corbyn. If educationally and economically successful ethnic minority voters believe that the Labour party has positioned itself almost entirely on the side of protecting the underdog, those who do not identify as being in need of that support may follow the C2 voters of the Thatcher era in seeing a switch of political allegiance as a ‘trading up’ part of upward mobility in British society.
There is still a lot that isn’t known about the ethnic minority vote – so quite a lot of guesswork has been involved in parties’ efforts to reach out. There has been a lot of focus on the diverging patterns of Asian or black voters, or Hindus and Muslims – but factors like whether voters are employed in the public or private sectors may prove just as important, along with place and region. The ethnic minority vote in Reading and Watford and that in Birmingham and Bradford may often have quite distinct dynamics. Ethnic minority voters are, on average, much younger than their fellow citizens, but the generation and gender shifts within minority communities have not been studied in detail.
The parties will naturally want to pick over what the growing contest for ethnic minority votes might mean for their own strategies to win votes in the future. It is worth making the case too that, from a non-partisan perspective, the increasing competition for ethnic minority votes is good news for Britain. No party can again expect to win 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the non-white vote, and certainly not to do so regardless of how their broader political fortunes waxed or waned, as the Labour party did in securing a similarly overwhelming share of the ethnic minority vote in both 1983 and 1997, even as other voters responded rather differently to the party of Michael Foot and Tony Blair.
So the increasing competition for minority votes reflects reduced political and social polarisation around race, since the days of Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit, certainly between the major political parties. It is also, in part, a product of the increasing education and economic success of Britain’s ethnic minorities, now more likely to be university graduates than the general population. While ethnic minority voters, notably first generation Commonwealth immigrants, tended to have commendably high levels of trust in British democracy, it may not always be bad news if their British-born children and grandchildren converge on the more sceptical norms of the broader population when it comes to casting their votes.