Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Can Labour hold on to aspirational ethnic minorities?

While immigration as a political issue should play to the advantage of the Conservatives or UKIP, the growing number of electors from non-white British backgrounds could benefit Labour substantially.  Whether Labour can rely on the unqualified support of these voters is the subject of research published in the latest Demos Quarterly.

First the arithmetic: in 2015 one in eight voters may come from a non-white British background.  Suppose four in five of all voters cast a Tory or Labour vote, which is reasonable based on their previous vote share. The Tories would need to lead Labour by 38 per cent to 32 per cent among white British voters to achieve overall parity if Labour’s lead of 64 per cent to 16 per cent among non-white British voters continues (as revealed by Lord Ashcroft’s polling). But what if the embourgoisement of aspirant minorities enables the Conservatives to chip away at Labour’s 64 per cent to 16 per cent lead?

Our Demos Quarterly essay particularly focuses on the impact of suburbanisation on the voting intentions of members of different minority communities. The dual effect of changes in the housing benefit system and housing affordability has resulted in a huge outflow of minorities from traditional reception areas in inner London suburbs (Brixton, Hackney) to former lower middle-class outer suburbs (Edmonton, Thornton Heath).

Using the voting intentions of some 2,400 electors surveyed by YouGov and the ethno-cultural profile of the names of electors in each of Britain’s 1.5 million postcodes, Webber Phillips have been able to examine the impact on their voting intentions of the ethno-cultural profile of the particular street in which they live.

Results indicate that the voting intention of member of a minority community varied surprisingly little according to whether they live surrounded by people of a similar background or isolated in a predominantly white area. In other words political attitudes appeared to be shaped primarily by cultural inheritance and relatively little by day-to-day interaction with the local community.

Interestingly, the cultural differences among more recent arrivals pull them in different political directions.

Take Harrow East and Harrow West, which until 1997 were two seemingly safe Tory seats. Since 1997 no other seats in Britain have experienced such huge increases in the proportions of adults who are married and who are self-employed, attributes one would not naturally associate with Labour party support. But these seats experienced two of the highest swings to Labour of any seat during the period 1992-2010, the reason being that these entrepreneurial new families were predominantly Hindu Indian.

While the reaction to the threat of discrimination by new arrivals from South Asia or the Middle East was self-employment, immigrants from former black African and West Indies colonies opted to work in the public sector, where it was supposed that anti-discriminatory policies were enforced more effectively. As a result, members of these minorities are far more likely than South Asians to work in unionised workplaces and in occupations most likely to be subjected to coalition spending cuts.

All of this has an impact on voting intention. So does historical memory: the experience of the white British minority communities, such as the Irish and Jews, reveals the importance of the acronym WASP, ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’. Among non-WASPs, memories of discrimination and injustice have taken longer to fade than it has taken for second and subsequent generations to achieve material success, and the same may be true of other minority groups.

But we will have to wait until 2015 to see the real impact of all of these factors on ethnic minorities’ voting preferences.


Richard Webber is visiting professor at the Department of Geography, Kings College London.


The full essay is published today in Issue 2 of Demos Quarterly and can be read here


Photo: Clive Darra

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Richard Webber

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