Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
Few of Britain’s black and Asian voters paid much attention to Europe before this referendum – but nor had either side of this decades-long debate ever paid much attention to them.
About three million ethnic minority voters cast a ballot in last year’s general election, reflecting a big demographic shift since the 1975 vote. Their choices could tip the balance of a knife-edge referendum, since ethnic minority voters ‘lean in’ more than out, but are more sceptical than others about whether the referendum matters enough to take part.
Ahead of the campaign, the ethnic minority vote was for Remain by a 2:1 margin. Survation’s 2000 strong ethnic minority poll for British Future a year ago found a 54 per cent to 28 per cent split, with 18 per cent undecided – and with similar patterns across Asian (52 per cent to 30 per cent) and black (54 per cent to 25 per cent) and mixed race (56 per cent to 29 per cent) voters. There have been no full-scale ethnic minority surveys since but British Election Study breaks, recently reported by Channel 4, show a broadly similar pattern, confirming less certainty about voting, too. In general elections, Asian and black voters, Hindus and Sikhs, Muslims and black Christians have increasingly distinct voting patterns. This appears less important on the EU, in which education and social class, and age and place are more likely to shape which ethnic minority voters choose each side.
In London, the ethnic minority vote leans strongly in, in the same manner as other voters in the capital: the most recent Ipsos-Mori findings show that Sadiq Khan, London’s new Mayor, has overtaken both Boris Johnson and David Cameron as Londoners’ most trusted referendum voice. Ethnic minority Britons are now more likely to have gone to university than their white peers – and have a distinctly younger age profile overall.
The under-30 vote generally is fertile territory for Remain – if it has got registered, and turns up to vote on the day. Older, first generation migrants in the north might sit it out too, or protest with a Leave vote. Westminster feels pretty distant, and Brussels doubly so. The benefits of the single market feel entirely intangible to those unhappy with this government’s economic plan. Most northern ethnic minority voters still vote Labour – but will hardly have got a sense that Labour think this vote matters much, if they know which side it is on at all.
Nor do the leading Leave campaigners, whether UKIP or Conservative, feel like their natural champions. The growing Conservative ethnic minority vote, stronger in the south of England, is upwardly mobile, often switching in 2015 to the Conservatives on the economy and leadership. As Bright Blue has shown, ethnic minority Conservative voters are distinctly pro-immigration. Some will plump for Boris Johnson’s global Brexit vision, but David Cameron and Sajid Javid’s advice to not take the economic risk may carry the day.
Starting behind, the Leave campaign has made the most prominent efforts to reach out. Steven Woolfe, UKIP’s mild-mannered immigration spokesman, bas made an audacious effort to transcend his party’s reputation with ethnic minority voters, combining the offer of a fairer immigration system with invoking Nehru, Mandela and his personal hero, Steve Biko, as inspiring his own commitment to an independent Britain.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Remain campaign thinks of itself as the most liberal, cosmopolitan and pro-diversity members of our society, yet any pro-EU gathering of the last couple of decades has been overwhelmingly white. That may explain why the Stronger In campaign’s first leaflet, sent to then million people, contained only white faces, as if it were still 1975, even in its London edition. This is a curiously persistent shared feature of progressive movements – from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to the emerging Corbynista upsurge, Despite being strongest in London, the big cities and the university towns, these movements still reflect the demographics of the early 1990s rather than that of today’s Britan’s.
Remain campaigners on race issues highlight a risk to anti-discrimination standards if we left, but most people think of our British anti-discrimination protections as the product of hard-fought political arguments here, rather than in Europe. Few Britons say they hold a ‘European identity’ – though 15 per cent of people do – and I wouldn’t need all of the fingers of one hand to count the number of black or Asian Britons I’ve ever heard say that they feel strongly European. Those who have spent time on the continent tend to see British race relations as healthier than those in France, Belgium or Austria.
So ethnic minority Britons could be a natural (though untapped) Leave target market: they have a stronger than average attachment to being British; many have practical and emotional ties to the Commonwealth. But trust remains the big barrier. Traditional Euroscepticism, from Enoch Powell onwards, often seemed to be offering to take us back to the country we were before Britain joined the EEC. A common assumption among ethnic minority voters is that the Leave campaign is run by UKIP, who won one in 50 non-white votes in 2015, which harms its cause. The consistent efforts of Woolfe and his colleague Douglas Carswell to get the UKIP tone right has had to compete with the reputational damage done by social media warriors who are less effective ambassadors for inclusivity.
Vote Leave recruiting half of the ethnic minority Conservative Parliamentarians has given them stronger messengers. Priti Patel, much the toughest voice on immigration, has been more prominent than more liberal voices like James Cleverley and Syed Kamall. Leave voices have put most emphasis on how free movement is unfair to the Commonwealth. An immigration system that doesn’t prefer unskilled Romanians to skilled Indians does resonate.
The trust issue here is that different promises are being made to different voters. If leaving the EU is about being able to keep the pledge to cut net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’, the rules of mathematics mean that there would be less room for Indian skills than at present, rather than more. Patel proposed Save the Curry Houses as a Leave message, but their trade association came down on the side of Alok Sharma, who has led the ‘economy first’ argument for Remain, recruiting many prominent Asian business voices and winning the editorial endorsement of Eastern Eye.
But Vote Leave have taken a risk in campaigning much harder on immigration than was suggested before it secured tdesignation. Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP, has switched from Leave to Remain because of the former’s campaign message about a Turkish invasion. Dreda Say-Mitchell ended up crossing swords with Nigel Farage when they were debating on the same side, and says that discomfort with allies puts potential Leave voters off. The Leave campaign risks exacerbating this trust gap with Nigel Farage’s recent warnings about refugees as rapists.
Most discussion of the ethnic minority vote has been about the issue of non-EU immigration. Yet the economy will matter more: the considerably lower salience of immigration for non-white voters is the one big difference on issue preferences in general election voting. That migration creates pressures on public services makes sense, but cultural arguments that immigration has made parts of Britain feel ‘unrecognisable’ feel like a throwback, again conflating immigration with race.
Many ethnic minority voters will be like many other late deciders, wanting to pay more attention in the last ten days to work out what the vote is all about. Many people appreciate that it feels like a big decision – with consequences likely to last longer than a general election – without being sure how this will affect them personally. To vote, many want to work out how to cut through the claims and counter-claims about the economy and immigration to work out which choice would really give the next generation a better shot in life. “People mostly just say: OK, what is this vote all about? Persuade me”, one campaigner focused on ethnic minority outreach told me. Even with ten or so days to go, many voters may still be tuning into the arguments for Leave and Remain for the first time.