Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
Not being white remains the number one demographic predictor of not voting Conservative. The party was once again only half as likely to secure the vote of an ethnic minority Briton as of their white British fellow citizens in this General Election. But while that ethnic vote gap was the difference between a hung parliament and a working majority in 2017, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives found another route to a majority in 2019, winning Leave-majority seats from Labour across the North, the Midlands and Wales.
Ipsos-Mori’s How Britain voted in the 2019 election overview estimates that Labour won 64 per cent of the ethnic minority vote, with the Conservatives on 20 per cent (+1) and the Liberal Democrats on 12 per cent (+6).
Labour’s share is nine per cent down on 2017, but level with the party’s performance with ethnic minority voters in 2015. The Conservative performance in 2019 and 2017 reflects a modest decline from securing almost one in four ethnic minority voters (24 per cent) in 2015 in the Ipsos-Mori series.
The Liberal Democrat share doubled in this election – rising from six per cent in 2017 and four per cent in 2015 – though the centre party had won 14 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010 before entering the coalition.
These figures would translate into over two million ethnic minority votes for Labour and perhaps 750,000 for the Conservatives – though the Conservatives would have another three-quarters of a million votes if it were able to level up its performance among minority groups. Caution is advisable about these indicative numbers – there is less data about the ethnic minority vote than any other section of the electorate, with no full-scale academic study since 2010.
There are different patterns among different parts of the electorate: the Conservatives have made some modest progress with British Chinese and Indian voters, while slipping back from a low base since 2010-15 with black British, Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters.
The most diverse Cabinet in British history may have laid the ghosts of the era of Enoch Powell – but the Windrush scandal and the party’s record on anti-Muslim prejudice have created new barriers to expanding the party’s appeal. The Conservatives won 13 per cent of the British Pakistani-origin vote in 2010, but that had fallen back to five per cent by 2017 – and is unlikely to improved this time.
A governing party should certainly not be content with one in twenty voters from a significant minority vote – a share no better than the estimated six per cent of British Jewish voters who voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, mired in an anti-semitism crisis. The clarity and credibility of the party’s review into the handling of anti-Muslim prejudice may offer an opportunity to reset and rebuild.
The Conservatives paid particular attention to winning British Indian-origin voters – but with very patchy results. In Harrow East, where Bob Blackman is the only Conservative to represent a ‘minority-majority’ seat, he outperformed colleagues across London by winning an increased majority on a five per cent swing to the Conservatives. There was also a dramatic 15 per cent swing to the Conservatives in Leicester East – a constituency where six out of ten votes are Indian-origin – after Keith Vaz stood down in ignominy, replaced by Labour NEC member Claudia Webbe. Labour’s majority was reduced from 30,000 to 6,000, but Webbe still won over 50 per cent of the vote.
Analysis suggests these results reflected local dynamics, rather than a national pattern. Joe Twyman of DeltaPoll has shown that there was no correlation between the proportion of Indian-origin voters in a constituency and changes in either Labour or Conservative support.
That applies similarly if the exercise is repeated for Hindu voters. Any dramatic swing to the Conservatives among Indian or Hindu voters should show up in these seats. “If you want to play the politics of voting blocs, then let’s play the politics of voting blocs”, Trupti Patel of the Hindu Forum of Britain told the Times of India – but the claim to command a Hindu voting bloc finds no support in the date.
Nor do outdated gatekeeper claims of this kind become any more legitimate if pursued from the right or the left. Similarly, the Overseas Friends of the BJP generated headlines in both India and Britain, claiming it would campaign to remove anti-Indian MPs from parliament, identifying several Labour MPs with Indian heritage a key targets. This much underestimated the political pluralism of British Indian views. Labour won 18 of the 20 seats with the highest number of Indian voters – and there will be seven Conservatives, seven Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat MP with Indian heritage among the 65 ethnic minority MPs in the Commons.
The record ethnic diversity of the new Commons reflects the growing realisation that few voters vote on the skin colour of their candidates – so that a large number of black and Asian Conservatives representing areas of low ethnic diversity. So a One Nation party should keep its distance from campaign like “Operation Dharmic Vote” in Leicester, which appeared to explicitly propose voting on the grounds of the faith or ethnicity of candidates. The argument should have been about relative merits of the candidates and parties.
In theory, Brexit was an opportunity for the Conservatives with ethnic minority voters – since the third of British Asians and quarter of black British voters who voted Leave are larger shares of the electorate than have ever voted Conservative. But it also proved a barrier among upwardly mobile graduate and young professionals voters who the party was targeting during the Cameron era. Corbyn-sceptic black and Asian voters were more likely to switch to the Liberal Democrats this time – but the Conservatives might hope to try again once the debate about Brexit moves on.
Overall, the 2019 changes in the ethnic minority vote appear to be broadly in line with those among the electorate overall. That pattern is reflected in actual votes in the 75 most ethnically diverse constituencies, where Labour won 58 per cent of the vote, a fall of seven per cent, with the Conservatives on 27 per cent, matching their 2017 share exactly, and the LibDems up by four per cent to nine per cent, according to Omar Khan’s analysis for a forthcoming Runnymede Trust briefing paper.
Those figures represent all votes cast – by white British and ethnic minority voters – in constituencies where ethnic minority voters make up over a third of the electorate, and a majority of voters in the 50 most diverse seats. Up to half of the ethnic minority population live in these 75 constituencies.
The Conservatives hold five of these seats, having lost several others since 2015, holding just Harrow East and Hendon among the 30 most diverse seats – holding off opposition challenges in Finchley and Golders Green, Cities of London and Westminster, and the Prime Minister’s constituency of Uxbridge.
London voted differently from the rest of England. Labour’s dominance in London is almost entirely attributable to the ethnic minority vote gap. A YouGov poll for the Mile End Institute showed the two major parties neck and neck among white Londoners – a Labour lead of one per cent, compared to a 52 per cent lead among ethnic minority voters, where Labour led the Conservatives by 68 per cent to 16 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats on 11per cent. It is the ethnic minority electorate which means that Labour won 49 seats to the Conservatives 21 and three for the LibDems – and London’s Conservatives will need to work out how to develop a distinct pitch to recover in the capital.
Shaun Bailey will lead the London Conservatives in next May’s Mayoral election, but all 21 London Conservative MPs are white British. Given that the first Asian Conservative MP in London was elected back in 1895, and the second from 1992-97, it is surprising that Mancherjee Bhownagree in the nineteenth century and Nirj Deva in the twentieth century still await a twenty-first century successor. There is growing ethnic diversity on the Conservative benches across Essex and Kent, Hampshire, Surrey and Yorkshire, but not in the capital city during the first two decades of this century.
The contenders for the Labour leadership need to grapple with how to broaden the party’s electoral coalition. Two million ethnic minority voters make up one-fifth of the party’s national vote. The new electoral map confirms Labour as the party of the cities, but the party now needs to construct a bridging cross-class, cross-ethnic coalition across the cities and towns if it is to govern again. That will be heard if the party’s inquest descends into an exchange of culture war caricatures – as some voices stereotype the voters that it has lost as neanderthal xenophobes while others insult those it has keep as out-of-touch metropolitans.
The Conservative Government may face choices between bridging and polarising too. It wants to ensure that this Christmas 2019 realignment was not just for Brexit. Will the government prioritise delivering for its new constituents on bridging issues – the NHS, schools and reviving the high streets – that have a broad cross-ethnic appeal, or will it seek advantage in feeding the culture war polarisations that increasingly fuel US politics in the Trump era? Do ethnic minority working-classes feature in the party’s account of rewarding contribution, or will approaches to meritocracy that can combines class and race barriers – like the pioneering race disparity audit – now get shelved?
The tone as well as the policy on post-Brexit immigration reforms will be one early indicator: a skills-based system that is nationality-blind could have broad appeal if ministers are heard to make the case for contribution and compassion alongside control.
The 2019 election shows that not yet solving the problem of how to appeal to ethnic minority voters is not yet an existential electoral issue. Yet it remains core test of any claim to govern for One Nation that the Government’s agenda should resonate and deliver for citizens of every faith and ethnicity.