The Runnymede Trust have published a report on race, ethnicity and equality in elections, with several academic contributors offering perspectives on issues such as thechanging party allegiances of different ethnic groups, political mobilisation of religious communities, the far right in the UK and BME representation in parliament to name a few.
Runnymede’s director Omar Khan notes that the changing demographic of the BME population in the UK has increased their electoral significance though how far political parties have responded well to the changing demography is less certain. “From less than 5% nationally (3 million people) in 1991, the BME population in 2011 rose to 13% – at 8 million, equivalent to the combined population of Scotland and Wales,” Khan writes.
Khan argues that BME voting power will continue to grow. With only 5% of over 60s coming from BME backgrounds, of those under 18 over, 20% are from BMEbackgrounds. By 2020, 10% of those aged 60-64 will be of BME backgrounds as will almost 20% of those aged 40 and under.
Oxford University Professor Anthony Heath in his contribution argues that BME party allegiances are changing. The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES)showed that while 68% of BME voters supported Labour, there were some clear differences when looking at specific ethnicities with 24% of Indians voting for the Conservative Party compared to only 18% of Bangladeshis, 13% of Pakistanis, 9% of Carribeans and just 6% of Africans.
Heath argues that “minorities are not a monolithic Labour-supporting bloc vote.” Nearly a quarter of the voters of Pakistani background supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010, according to the EMBES. Whilst this was largely due to Labour’s decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Heath argues it was only partly to blame for divergences in allegiance. The policy agendas of minorities may not be as distinctively left-wing as one would assume, with the EMBES study showing that ethnic minority groups are actually 12% more in favour of cutting taxes than the electorate as a whole. Topics like immigration divide the BME vote, with Indians being notable for their anti- immigration stance.
Heath warns that minority support for Labour should not be taken for granted by the party, using George Galloway and the Respect Party as an example. In 2005,Galloway was expelled from the Labour party for his fierce opposition to the Iraq war but then won the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency and more recently overturned a safe Labour seat in the Bradford West by-election in 2012. Minorities, particularly the Muslim communities, are likely to be heavily influenced by policy preferences on specific issues in the ballot box, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Heath argues.
Heath also points to the issues that ethnic minorities raise as important to them such as “a concern to be offered equal opportunities in British society.”
Maria Sobolewska of Manchester University discusses the religious political mobilisation of BME voters. The 2010 EMBES showed that minorities who attended their places of worship regularly trusted political institutions, such as the UK parliament, to a greater degree and felt they could influence British politics. Sobolewska argues that “engagement in their local communities through a place of worship” is key for those who do not participate in politics in other ways and may even be the difference between voting and not voting.
Sobolewska raises the question of whether religion has a place in politics and refers to popular distrust of the role of religion in politics. She refers to research which shows that places of worship can perform a vital role in connecting individual to politics given the low rate of contact by political parties. For example, in the last election 54% of white Britons questioned said they had been contacted by at least one political party but among ethnic minorities, this figure was less than a third, 29%. Places of worship can therefore play a role that political parties are not fulfilling adequately.
Sobolweska goes on to look at perceptions of mosques as fuelling extremist positions or distrust of political institutions and finds that “the worries about places of worship mobilising an insular and extremist political activity seen unwarranted bar a few isolated exceptions.”
Runnymede’s report warns low BME support could cost Conservatives nine seats in 2015 if they continue to fail to engage with voters from minorities.
Dr Nicole Martin of the University of Essex discusses how the growing demographic profile of BME communities has prompted the Conservatives to dramatically increase the number of ethnic minority MPs and candidates in winnable seats. They are now likely to match Labour’s numbers in 2015, having started from a position of no BME MPs in 2005.
There were 132 ethnic minority candidates standing from Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats in 2010. However, “the Liberal Democrat experience” proves how important being selected for a winnable seat is. They failed to elect any ethnic minority MPs in 2010, despite fielding 41 minority candidates. There were a substantial number of Muslim candidates – 55 from three largest parties Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
Martin discusses inherent discrimination taking place in constituencies and whether minority candidates fare worse due to their race. In 2010, ethnic minority candidates did receive lower shares of the vote. Martin refers to a study which compared how incumbent MPs facing an ethnic minority opponent fared in comparison to those who did not. Alarmingly, white incumbent candidates received more votes when standing against an ethnic minority opponent, implying that some voters express a bias in favour of white candidates. Martin notes that this is sometimes due to white voters with racist and a strong anti-immigrant stance avoiding voting for BME or Muslim candidates. Martin argues “this is solid evidence that in 2010, ethnic minority parliamentary candidates faced an electoral penalty on account of their ethnicity.”
Even more worrying is that this electoral disadvantage means that parties may be reluctant to put minority ethnic candidates in any seats that are not safe and winnable.
Increasing ethnic diversity of the population means greater diversity in parliament is necessary so that minority communities’ interests are better represented. Martin concludes that positive change is being made stating “it is not just minority MPs who are interested in issues of equality; all MPs ask more questions about ethnic minority rights and equality issues if they have an ethnically diverse constituency.”
The Speakers Conference report on Parliamentary Representation sets out a number of recommendations to improve the level of BME representation in the House of Commons. While many of the recommendations remain on paper and important area which appears to be neglected and is no less relevant in the elections this year given the local elections taking place on the same day, is the level of BME representation in local politics.
Nigel Copsey looks at the waning electoral significance of the far right in British politics and its continuing “everyday impact upon local communities”. While the far right BNP and other smaller parties, such as the National Front or Liberty GB, have failed to reverse terminal decline at the ballot box, these far right parties still present social challenges in the form of racial tension or violence.
For the 2015 General Election, the three major parties have, to different degrees, addressed the concerns of minority voters. The Conservative manifesto is still relatively limited with proposals to increase the numbers of Black and minority ethnic police officers, review hate crime legislation and modify how stop and search arrests are conducted “if stop to arrest ratios do not improve.”
Labour introduced a specific BAME manifesto last week, pledging to “extend opportunity for all” and to take “robust” action against hate crime, alongside a raft of other policies including a “cross government race equality strategy”. The Liberal Democrats made pledges in their manifesto, promising to “monitor and tackle the BAME pay gap”, to review BAME individuals treatment in the criminal justice system and to introduce ‘name blank’ CVs in public sector job recruitment –which featured in their 2010 manifesto, but failed to be implemented in the coalition.
A number of the concerns of Muslims raised in MEND’s Muslim Manifesto have been touched upon by some parties. The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems are all committed to protecting religious practices including halal slaughter. Labour have pledged to improve the recording of Islamophobic hate crimes and overhaul the current ‘Prevent’ government strategy. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to involve communities in the tackling of extremism, with the Lib Dems pledging to ensure Muslims are not stigmatised or alienated by counter-terrorism policies. You can find out more about ‘who committed to what’ on MEND’s website.
BME groups in Scotland, the far-right vote and the rise of UKIP are some other of the issues discussed in ‘Race and Elections’. The full report can be read here.