It’s been three months since Labour’s decisive and brutal defeat, and yet we find ourselves in the midst of another campaign for the future of the country. Not a day goes by without a new message from one of the four candidates looking to become the next leader of the party, and in the words of a local activist, “it’s as though we are still in election mode”.
The leadership contest has electrified the membership and sparked a debate not seen within the party for the last 20 years. What is the purpose of Labour? Which direction should it be heading in? Is it time to abandon or embrace a centrist approach to politics? Is it more important to be electable or to never compromise? Who will win this existential fight over the identity of the Labour Party?
I hosted an event for South Asian professionals recently and at least a dozen people, Labour and non-Labour supporters alike, came to me to talk about the pros and cons of the various contenders. All agreed that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign had given a blast of adrenaline to the contest, but one thing that emerged from those conversations was that the debate has so far skimmed over the Labour Party’s relationship with ethnic minorities.
For decades, it was assumed that ethnic minorities would support Labour no matter what. That was pure hubris. A poll by Survation commissioned by British Future in the immediate aftermath of May’s defeat revealed that the Conservatives received over 1 million BAME votes whilst 1.4 million BAME voters supported Labour. At this rate, the Tories could be attracting more BAME votes than Labour come 2020. How has this happened?
Politicians tend to forget that ethnic minorities are not homogeneous. The BAME communities are a diverse and eclectic group of 8 million people and rising. They may have been united against racism in the 1980s, but they now have little in common. Issues, for example, concerning British Pakistanis are in many respects different to those affecting the African-Caribbean community, which itself has its own distinctions based on region, culture and religion.
Look at extreme examples such as the Hinduja brothers and the Mittal family. Both are Indian Hindus based in the UK, and they are amongst the ten richest families in the country. Regardless of what you may think of them, their combined wealth of £20bn could pay for the renewal of Trident and leave enough spare cash to build half a dozen hospitals. Compare that with the largely disenfranchised Somali community and their high levels of unemployment (56% for men and 77% for women according to the Census 2011), and you begin to see the fallacy of BAME homogeneity.
There is a growing aspirational class of ethnic minorities and the Conservatives have managed to tap into that in a way that Labour so obviously failed to. Many buy-to-let landlords are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and view Labour as a threat to their property portfolios. BAME entrepreneurs failed to be impressed by Miliband’s approach towards business. Professionals regardless of ethnicity are now more likely to give their unwavering support to the Conservatives rather than Labour. The tide has turned, and Labour has been left behind.
The importance of engagement with faith communities is also something that Labour has been unable or unwilling to understand. For the vast majority of BAME Britons, faith is a key part of their identity, which at times trumps their Britishness. According to the Census 2011, approximately 85% of ethnic minorities belong to a faith community. Whatever the criticisms of Cameron’s recent speech on extremism, and there are several I can think of, it displayed an understanding of the significance of faith for a large number of people across the country as well as a level of faith literacy currently absent from most political discussions.
For a party that owes more to Methodism than Marx, Labour suffers from collective amnesia about the role faith played in developing ideas of social welfare and justice. If we don’t acknowledge the importance of engagement on issues affecting faith communities, we are effectively dismissing the concerns of BAME Britons as inconsequential. For example, British Sikhs lament the fact that this is the first Parliament in 23 years not to have a single Sikh MP and that there are no Labour Sikh peers in the Lords, something that both Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall have acknowledged at a recent hustings.
Our next leader will have a plethora of issues to address. Unifying the party, dealing with the threat from UKIP, the fightback in Scotland, our relationship with the EU, and plenty besides. However, if from the outset the leadership fails to engage with ethnic minorities properly, understand the diversity and dynamics that exists within the BAME communities, and be more comfortable with dialogue with faith communities as a whole, the fight for 2020 and beyond will be all the more difficult.