Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
Successive Conservative party leaders have seen the party’s historically distant relationship with British ethnic minorities as an existential challenge. The party has been only half as likely to win the vote of a non-white as a white British citizen. British Future’s research showed how that ethnic vote gap made the difference between a hung parliament and winning a majority in both 2010 and 2017.
This should be a question of values as well as votes. Any party that aspires to govern our country should want to pass a simple one nation test: that no citizen should feel any tension between supporting that party and their ethnic and faith background. All parties have got work to do for that aspiration to be realised.
The Labour Party’s ruptured relationships with the Jewish community will be a significant election issue. The broad majority of British Jews have lost confidence in Labour’s response to anti-semitism, so that the party which proudly pioneered anti-discrimination legislation in Britain finds itself the subject of an EHRC investigation into evidence compiled by Jewish party members about its failure to create a process or party culture to deal with anti-semitism effectively.
The Conservatives have made some progress with Indian voters, somewhat more slowly than the Conservatives had hoped, or than the socio-economic profile of Indian voters would suggest. So the Conservatives are clearly not the party of Enoch Powell anymore, but the focus on “historic baggage” has overlooked the extent to which the party has risked creating new baggage, as the Windrush scandal exemplified.
The Conservative Party has flat-lined or slipped back from a low base with both black British voters and British Muslims. There was little public debate in the party after Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for London Mayor in 2016. and the sluggish progress after Boris Johnson’s commitment to an inquiry into anti-Muslim prejudice in the party, secured by Sajid Javid during the party leadership contest, captures a reactive and reluctant approach to grasping this nettle.
There is an increasingly divergent pattern between different minority groups, but generalising about ethnic groups also over-simplifies if it does not recognise how cleavages of class, education and geography play out within minority groups too. Black British and Asian voters were also Remainers and Leavers . Those who work in the public sector, who lean left, and private sector, who lean right, may prioritise different issues too.
Johnson has said that he is proud to have appointed the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in British history: the party plans to give Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and rising star Rishi Sunak a prominent role in the election. The Conservative 2019 campaign will seek to narrow the ethnic voting gap, but it may have become a second-order priority in the short-term. The central focus of the party’s Brexit realignment bid in 2019 is on Leave-voting towns held by Labour, that have an older and whiter demographic, rather echoing how the 2015 majority combined some progress with British Asian voters along with heavy gains in the south-west, among England’s least ethnically diverse regions.
There are towns, including Bedford, Keighley and Peterborough where the ethnic minority vote may play a significant role this time around. The gradual geographic spread of ethnic diversity means that ethnic minority voters are not just a large share of the vote in London marginals like Battersea and Kensington, but one part of the electoral jigsaw in suburban marginal seats too.
The Conservatives may be slower to increase their share of Indian voters if they can’t reverse the broader generation gap in British politics, so that young graduates and the under-30s are leaning left across most groups, as part of the polarisation by education and age of post-Brexit politics. Beyond the 2019 campaign, any sustainable majority strategy for the party depends on working how to bridge these generational and ethnic minority gap.
British elections often see noisy, self-promoting claims about the ability to deliver ethnic minority voters en bloc to swing seats from one party or another, with a noisy row over claims to represent the Indian vote in this election.
Foreign policy issues are, doubtless, somewhat more salient to diasporas than to other voters – but to nothing like the extent that media coverage suggests. The evidence suggests that ethnic minority voters also prioritise domestic issues – the economy, jobs and the NHS – over foreign policy ones. For most ethnic minority voters, the central questions are who should lead the country; Brexit; jobs, crime, the economy and the NHS.
Views of foreign policy may reinforce broader feelings of trust or mistrust about Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn, but neither Narendra Modi nor Imran Khan are on the ballot paper in a British general election and British voters from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds have mixed views of both leaders. There will also be British Indian voters for whom crime, childcare or climate change are more pressing issues than Kashmir.
Temples, mosque and gurdwaras remain popular for colourful political photo opportunities. Younger British-born ethnic minority voters will expect to hear from national party leaders or their local candidates about why they deserve their vote – rather than listening to those who claim that their faith or ethnic background should determine their vote. The idea that those in the congregation want to be instructed on how to vote is an outdated form of minority politics that younger British-born voters often want to leave behind.
Efforts to play ‘good minority’ and ‘bad minority’ on either side of the party argument would be bad for social cohesion in Britain – and deserve to fail electorally too. As all parties seek to secure support from these growing sections of the electorate, they need to do so for the right reasons if they want to pass the one nation test.