Why is Labour losing BAME voters to the Tories?
In the year that has passed since the 2015 general election, relatively little attention has been focused on one of the most dramatic aspects of last May’s results – the number of ethnic minority voters who turned their back on the Labour party.
The longstanding relationship between ethnic minorities and the Labour party is fraying, with research conducted by Survation for British Future finding that one in three black and minority ethnic voters supported the Conservatives – a doubling in just five years – while Labour’s share declined from 68 per cent to 52 per cent.
Such a direct shift to the Conservatives in the allegiances of one of Labour’s most loyal electoral assets should surely set alarm bells ringing.
David Cameron was re-elected to Downing Street thanks in part to the support of one million ethnic minority voters, which proves that his attempts to move into Labour territory are working. We simply cannot afford to take ethnic minority voters for granted.
More Hindu and Sikh voters voted Conservative than Labour last May, and the haemorrhaging of ethnic minority support is particularly pronounced in the southern marginal seats where we already have the most work to do if we want to win back power. In the south of England, 43 per cent of black and ethnic minority electors voted Labour and 40 per cent voted Conservative compared to 60 per cent Labour and just over a quarter voting Conservative on safer terrain in the north and the Midlands.
In the mid-to-late 20th century the support of ethnic minority voters was virtually assured thanks to the work of Labour governments in passing legislation that advanced and protected minority rights and the very thinly disguised dog-whistle opposition to immigration that emanated from the rightwing of the Conservative party.
We must always be proud of the fact that it was Labour that fought to pass anti-discrimination laws through parliament and built a more tolerant society in which people from all backgrounds can flourish. But we must also recognise the fact that Labour cannot simply rely on the votes of ethnic minorities as it once did.
Today demographics have changed and the picture is a lot more complicated. To keep up, Labour needs to move beyond a narrow understanding of ‘community’ politics that worked in the 1970s and 1980s.
Where ethnic minority voters were once mostly first- or second-generation immigrants, often struggling to get by and living in urban areas, today ethnic minority voters are moving out of traditionally more diverse urban areas and have become more socially mobile and aspirational.
Younger BAME voters are more concerned about their job prospects than issues of race or immigration – the unemployment rate among these groups is more than double the national average (9.6 per cent compared to 4.3 per cent) and the number of long-term unemployed people from these backgrounds rose by 50 per cent from 2010-15.
Winning back the loyalty of these voters will be a challenge, but the scale of the opportunity is demonstrated by the fact that in 253 constituencies the ethnic minority population exceeds the majority of the sitting member of parliament.
We need to address the issue sooner rather than later, as ethnic minority voters are going to play an increasingly significant role and are likely to comprise one-fifth of the electorate by 2020.
What happened in the London mayoral election shows that within unsavoury elements of the Conservative party the spectre of race politics is never really that far away. The lesson that we can learn from the London result is that sinking to the depths and trying to play different ethnic groups off against one another actually galvanised a comfortable majority in favour of a Labour candidate offering unity and hope over fear and division.
As a progressive party we should be thankful that the undignified and divisive politics of old are clearly no longer effective campaigning tools. But Labour needs to do much better in responding to the aspirations and hopes of minority communities if we are to stem the flow of minority voters abandoning us for the Tories.
David Lammy MP is a former minister
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