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Diversity challenge: Can Labour still attract enough BME voters?

The Labour party has always had a historically resilient and core ethnic minority vote – but although the party has often taken that vote for granted, it is increasingly at risk. This issue ties in with a greater one: how can...


The Labour party has always had a historically resilient and core ethnic minority vote – but although the party has often taken that vote for granted, it is increasingly at risk. This issue ties in with a greater one: how can politics be more relevant and connect to the concerns of ordinary voters?

Let us explore the first problem. The ethnic minority vote is itself non-homogenous and increasingly diverse as it follows successive waves of migration. An absence of ethnic minority MPs and councillors in politics simply perpetuates the preconception amongst an increasingly diverse electorate that politics isn’t for ‘people like me’ – at present, only 4.2 per cent of MPs are from an ethnic minority background which falls well short of the 15 per cent of British citizens who are of ethnic minority origin.

Yet despite measures that have been implemented to date for increased BAME representation and inclusion in the Labour party, including an active BAME Labour group, the outcome of a recent Policy Exchange report gives us cause for alarm for the representation of ethnic minorities in politics. It released the headline-grabbing announcement that one third of British citizens will be of minority ethnic origin by 2050. If accurate, this points to a widening chasm between politics and the populace and indicates that measures implemented to date have not solved the problem of representation. This is an issue which needs urgent attention if the Labour party is to continue to remain relevant in modern British society.

The rate and pace of change with regard to the proportion of ethnic minority Britons in the UK, and the importance of urgent attention to this change is closely related to the second problem Labour faces with the ethnic minority core vote. It has historically been the case that the Labour party has had a strong ethnic minority core vote in Britain – with a lead of 30.9% in its appeal to ethnic minority voters. But this assumption was challenged when voters elected George Galloway to a safe Labour seat in Bradford West in 2012.

The evidence base is also starting to challenge this assumption. A recent report from Demos has indicated that over time, this vote is becoming less resilient as well as less homogenous – the vote for Labour becomes less resilient when we encounter BME individuals who are in mixed communities, and also when we look beyond the ‘catch-all’ term ‘BME’ to the diversity that this term masks.

For example, British Indians are least likely of minority ethnic communities to vote Labour (Labour’s lead with British Indian voters is much lower than the average – down to 13.3 per cent), whilst British Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Afro-Caribbeans are most likely to vote Labour. In short, taking the ‘core vote’ for granted is a very bad idea.

A new battleground is emerging as second and third generation BME communities become increasingly affluent and move out of ‘cluster’ areas into ‘non-cluster’ areas which have always more traditionally voted Conservative or Lib Dem. This is beginning to matter – particularly in the metropolitan parts of the UK. Gone are the days when engagement with community leaders could easily deliver ‘block’ votes on behalf of specific communities.

In addition, the more recent waves and patterns of migration including Somali and Eastern European communities have added to a looser concept of the term ‘ethnic minority’. The previous resilience of the Labour ethnic minority vote was closely connected to its relative homogeneity. So it is of importance that Labour reviews and renews its relationship and offer with all ethnic minority individuals to ensure it continues to reflect the concerns of modern day Britain.

The more pronounced differences become, the more we must seek to protect the core values that unify across those differences and to remind all party members that the ending of race inequality is part of a broader mission by the Labour party to end inequality overall.

Progressive politics has always had at its heart the recognition that there is more that unites individuals than that which separates us.  That is why a healthy and inclusive conversation about some of the reforms on positive action Sadiq Khan MP has proposed both within the Labour party and beyond it in public service in relation to the Work Programme, across the civil service, with recruitment procedures in the police, and in corporate boardrooms should be welcomed, whatever one’s views about the practicalities and challenges of implementation.

It is also important to recognise that a good Labour policy offer for ethnic minorities is good Labour policy in any case. For example, poverty is higher among every ethnic minority group than for the white majority population including in-work poverty and child poverty, and Labour’s track record of delivering on universal services such as the National Health Service and on education continues to be attractive to ethnic minority voters. There is more work to do to improve the accessibility of public services and politics with an increasingly diverse British public in mind.

Best understanding how this can be done is not easy and cannot be covered in a single article. It needs serious work from a Labour Party which is in touch with the local needs of a particular area and its communities, and invests in a relationship with ethnic minorities on an ongoing basis. Good politicians (ethnic minority or otherwise) will understand that they need to ‘check their privilege’ – reminding themselves of how their background shapes their thoughts in their role as advocates and representatives for ethnic minorities and other diverse groups. Both public servants and politicians need to listen more than they talk. Successfully campaigning for ethnic minority voters comes down to rebuilding trust in the political process and in public services by rebuilding a mandate for both public service and democratic politics – and representation is a vital part of rebuilding that trust.

This is work that we need to invest in over time – and work which might just lead to material results for the Labour party in the next few general elections.

Reema Patel is a Labour councillor in Barnet for and secretary of Fabian Women’s Network

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