Minority election: could black voters swing it in UK in 2015?


In the next general election, 168 marginal seats could be decided by non-white voters. After the Hispanic vote swung the US election for Barack Obama in 2012, the UK's three major parties know how crucial minority votes will be. But are they doing enough to win them?


Simon Woolley recalls his first viewing of the research that could alter the course of the 2015 general election. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I told them to go away and check it again, and then again. No one expected this."

It was a depth charge into the waters of contemporary politics, and it resulted from a simple exercise by Woolley's organisation Operation Black Vote (OBV). It took the information from the census and its up-to–the-moment picture of where Britain's minorities live – a snapshot measuring the steady but pronounced migration of non-indigenous voters from towns to suburbs and even into rural areas of Britain. It then compared that with the parliamentary boundaries, paying particular attention to those seats designated as marginals, and pinpointed those seats where the slender parliamentary majority is outweighed by a resident minority population now available to vote. What it revealed was that 168 marginal seats are susceptible to the voting whims of a minority electorate.

It's a window of opportunity in what will undoubtedly be a tight election, says Woolley; a chance to finally force the mainstream parties to pay attention to concerns that might be collectively held by black and Asian voters. The parties thought the same. "Within 48 hours, I had in my diary meetings with senior officials from all three of them."

High time, says Woolley, for each to explain what they would do about pressing subjects such as equalities legislation, immigration and stop and search. "The stars are aligned for us, but they won't be for long," he predicts. "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Who knows if there will be so many marginals again, or if minorities will be so well placed to impact upon them."

So will brown skins vote en masse? Not at all, says Woolley. "We are not homogenous, but there are issues that affect us all. Inequality is one; it's a big one, whether it is a middle manager hitting the glass ceiling or a young person who has never had a job and isn't likely to get one. We need to galvanise people and we need to hold some feet to the fire. And we've got about 18 months to do it."

It's a window in which to turn a paper opportunity into an actual one, and the drive began in earnest this week with the arrival from the US of that veteran galvaniser of the minority vote, the Rev Jesse Jackson. An odd couple perhaps, he and the British campaigner take that aspiration to mass meetings in London and Birmingham, Woolley with his research and Jackson with the experience he has gained through the voter-registration activities of his grassroots campaigning organisation, the Rainbow PUSH coalition. "There are parallels with the UK and the US regarding racial disparities and inequalities in unemployment, education, criminal justice at the hands of the police and courts," says Jackson. "Here we are, 50 years after the march on Washington for jobs and justice and just months after the supreme court struck a major blow to the Voting Rights Act. My visit to the UK is to celebrate, but also to prepare for action." Success is a million voters registered for 2015.

The research, which took two researchers six months and was validated by Prof Anthony Heath, an expert in minorities and politics at Oxford University, may have been uniformly seized upon but effects different parties in different ways. For all of them it is an opportunity, but for some a threat.

It gives Labour a chance to re-emphasise its historical supremacy over the minority vote. It has 15 minority MPs and attracted the lion's share of support in 2010. According to the Runnymede Trust, 68% of ethnic minorities voted Labour, compared with 31% of white Britons.

The party will not relinquish that hegemony in a hurry. And yet, speak privately and you find that all is far from tranquil internally. Black and ethnic minority activists have rarely been so despondent, complaining that the party's efforts to reach out specifically to minority communities and to secure more minority MPs have dissipated.

A particular bugbear is the fact that it has fully embraced the notion of all-female shortlists, but struggles still with the notion of minority-only shortlists. Concern is heightened because the all-women shortlists – while increasing on paper the prospects for some minority activists – don't appear to be helping minority women to a significant degree. Of 63 contests prior to the 2010 election featuring all-women shortlists, only a smattering of minority women prevailed, such as Shabana Mahmood in Birmingham, Lisa Nandy in Wigan and Valerie Vaz in Walsall. These highly prized openings routinely attract the attention of well-placed activists with benefactors, networks and a telling history in the party; a headstart. This, the aggrieved will tell you, is Labour's catch- 22: why do many minorities fail to gain a foothold in the party? Because they do not already have a sufficiently secure foothold in the party.

Even high-fliers struggle. Kamaljeet Jandu, the widely known national officer for equality at the GMB union and well regarded chair of Black and Ethnic Minority Labour, recently sought a place on the party's list for MEP selection in London. He came sixth.

"We were shocked. We thought that if he can't break through, what chance for the rest of us," one senior Black Labour activist tells me. "The will to change this has to come from the top. But that is just not happening. We can find people and train people but there are so many institutional barriers in the party. So much is still based on class – it is anything but a meritocracy. There are behind-the-scenes networks that we just can't permeate. Thirty years ago, Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng came through and that seemed to be the start of something revolutionary. But if anything, since then we've gone backwards. It seems to me that people are embarrassed to even talk about race."

Does all this matter for Labour? Yes, but not perhaps to a heart-stopping degree because the party's hold over minority votes seems decisive in the short term. Class and force of habit trumps racial self-interest. And rare is the disgruntled black wouldbe parliamentarian who would defect. But that won't always be the situation, warns one hopeful Labour candidate. "As time passes, people become more likely to consider other options. We can't be so complacent."

The MP Diane Abbott also warns against complacency. "The black and minority ethnic vote has been very loyal to Labour for a long while, but younger people are more disaffected. Labour needs to be wary of taking the BME vote for granted. The old certainties no longer apply. The party needs a concrete strategy for moving towards more BME MPs and councillors. We just can't leave it to chance."

There is some appreciation of what might be required. For all the squalls of her career, in 2010 – in Hackney and Stoke Newington – where more than half of the electorate comes from an ethnic minority – she doubled her majority, taking 55% of the vote on an increased turnout. There are subjects an MP might address that chime with everyone, she says, but also concerns particular to minorities in her constituency. A current example is the rise in air-passenger duty on flights from Britain to the Caribbean. But the keys are credibility and tone. "It is about how you treat BME communities, how you talk about them and how you talk about issues that concern them, such as immigration."

These are all issues for a Conservative party that certainly can't feel safe against the backdrop of the OBV research. Traditionally it has survived and thrived as the party of white middle England, but increasingly strategists are factoring in the demographic shift in UK towns and cities. According to the BBC's Great British Class Survey, one-fifth of the ethnic minority population can now consider itself middle class. Many could and should present as credible recruitment targets for the Tories.

The party has 11 minority MPs now and operates from a position of weakness, confronted by conflicting imperatives and the knowledge that in 2010 it secured just 16% of the minority vote. What to do to secure a majority, or simply stave off a return to the opposition benches? Should it chase minority support and perhaps secure some of those lifeblood marginals identified by OBV, or tack right and solidify its traditional core vote by heading off the threat from Ukip? There is scant chance that it can do both. And in Lynton Crosby, the party's controversial Australian strategist, they are led by someone who presents as master of the narrow "core vote" campaign. Hence, say observers, the government's summer concentration on immigration.

This matters between now and 2015, but it matters even more beyond. And it sets up potential conflict with the long-term thoughts of Tory strategists such as Lord Ashcroft and senior figures such as co-chairman Lord Feldman, who observe the wreckage of a US Republican party that is estranged from the growing Hispanic population of 53 million in the US and thus condemned to bit-part status. Mitt Romney projected his party's antipathy to Hispanic immigration and paid the price come election day, attracting just 27% of the Hispanic vote. A suicidal act of positioning, singled out by Romney himself as a compelling reason for his defeat.

Conservative disdain for Britain's minorities may have been sustainable in the glory years – think Margaret Thatcher's reference to those of an "alien culture" and Lord Tebbit's insulting cricket test. But forward-thinking Tories now recognise that approach as being so last century. They go armed with internal and detailed research undertaken by Ashcroft, who now veers towards the evangelical on the subject of the Tories claiming their share of the minority vote.

Even before the OBV bombshell, the party was trying things. There was a fresh push by figures such as Indian-born vice-chair Alok Sharma to raise the profile of the party in minority communities and challenge the perception that the party is racist. A new campaign pack gave Tory parliamentary candidates advice on how to operate in minority areas. And it has been keen to find even more black and Asian MPs, now there is no A-list of centrally endorsed candidates with which such an outcome can be engineered. The A-list caused David Cameron a good deal of difficulty prior to the 2010 election. Instead, party officials are taking a closer interest in how selections are conducted, trying to ensure minority hopefuls get a fair shake. But even that is perilous. Voicing the aspiration for greater diversity in the party is one thing, engineering it is quite another. It smacks of "identity politics". For all the possibilities, Tory activists deplore identity politics.

"It's all a huge challenge for us, although I'm not sure any political party has got it right yet," explains one senior Tory MP. "We have a few more minority MPs and that's a good thing – although I do sometimes wish that some of them would be a bit more secure about their ethnicity. They just ape public school manners and so don't have the impact one would like."

He sees his party as being on a learning curve, forced to grapple with new complexities. "A lot of it is down to income levels. You take the Ismaili Muslims – a lot of them are professional and have done well for themselves and we can have one kind of conversation with them. But with Pakistani Muslims, Bangladeshi Muslims and Somali Muslims, that's something different altogether. It is very complicated."

And, he says, it's changing. "We are looking at the third and fourth generation now. It's no use looking to the old man at the mosque to deliver the vote. He can say what he likes, but the younger ones just go away and organise themselves on Facebook. They're one step ahead. The old thinking just isn't effective."

What could be decisive, he says, is shoe leather: door-to-door politics. "A lot of minorities have never seen a Conservative. All they know about us is what they have been told by Labour and the Liberals. We could counteract that. We've been trying. But when certain colleagues use certain kinds of language and send immigration vans on to the streets, that certainly doesn't help."

At the sharp end of that Tory dilemma sits Mohammed Amin. One of the groups that the Tories most struggle to attract is Muslims and he is deputy chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum. A tough sell. But he says it shouldn't be. "If you look at the values of a typical Muslim citizen and what they regard as important – family, hard work, being thrifty and education – these are things reflected in Conservative policy. But if a politician says, 'Our values are the same, you should vote Conservative', that sounds too patronising. I am recommending that we just talk about our values."He's also recommending that Conservative candidates and activists be prudent with their language. "We, like Labour and the Lib Dems, favour a two-state solution. If a candidate goes around saying 'I am a Zionist', Muslims say that means you are in favour of settlers grabbing as much Palestinian land as possible. We should be honest and consistent but use language that is appropriate."

And no dabbling in identity politics, says Amin. It doesn't work anyway. "George Galloway fought a brilliant campaign in Bradford. He ignored the community leaders and had a campaign led by Muslim women who persuaded people who had never voted before to vote. We have to do things our way. There should be nothing we say to a Muslim audience that we would not say to a wider audience."

And the racism millstone? "You've got to fess up. Institutional memory is a big issue. People remember the party of Enoch Powell. We say: 'We're not racist now. We have a few racists still but the party has changed.' You can't change the past but you can change the future."

So is there the opportunity for the Lib Dems to present as a party that has never been hostile and hasn't grown complacent? Perhaps. But it too has a bugbear – the absence of a narrative it can sell on the doorstep. It has a smattering of minority councillors and earlier this year – having convened a task force – sought to find distinctive policy positions on minority education and employment. But still it lacks a distinctive philosophy that might draw in a minority vote. Worse still, in coalition, it is tainted by the anti-immigration reputation of the Conservatives.

It's a problem for Nick Clegg. In 2009, he said that if his party – all white in the Commons – failed to improve that position by 2015 he would seriously consider all-black shortlists. Since then he has gone quiet on the subject and who can say whether he will be willing, or able, to make such changes after 2015. In the meantime, the prize for his party in this regard seems modest – holding on to its 57 MPs, maybe advancing just a little.

Lester Holloway, a Sutton Lib Dem councillor and anti-racism activist is the secretary of Ethnic Minority Lib Dems. He also led the OBV research, so he knows the specifics. "We have got everything to gain and everything to lose, but we need to broaden our appeal to minorities if we are to have a realistic chance of winning target seats from the Conservatives and holding on to about half of the seats that we have now," he says. Can they do that? "One of the reasons I am here is that I believe in the central philosophies of the party in terms of equality and social justice and that these are key qualities that can appeal to minorities."

But it's an uphill climb, he says. They are "playing catchup" with a Clegg-inspired leadership programme to unearth and develop minority MPs. And they may soon erase the embarrassing truth of an all-white corps of MPs in parliament. Two seats, potentially winnable, will be fought by minority Lib Dem candidates: Layla Moran in Oxford and Abingdon and Maajid Nawaz – a founder of the counter-extremism thinktank Quillam – in Hampstead and Kilburn.

There is a strategy, Holloway says, and he presents it as a hopeful one. But what is also needed is a leap of faith. The party, he says, has to unequivocally commit, banishing all concerns that to pursue a minority vote might conflict with the tenets of liberalism. It has no choice in this regard. "Things won't improve by themselves."

None of the major parties is as prepared as it might be, and that's a boon for the industrious Woolley as he prepares to make his demands, aided and guided by Jackson. But can they communicate the possibilities to those who need to hear them? Can they sign up enough new voters to make the effort credible? Can they establish whether enough common points of interest unite enough minorities for them to collectively dictate a view to the politicians? Can they cajole them from the breakfast table to the ballot box? There is no point identifying votes if the people don't vote. "I'll be here, there and everywhere, saying: 'Look, we have never had this sort of leverage. This is more potential power and influence than we have ever had in our entire political history.' The question is whether and how we use it."

Hugh Muir, The Guardian, 04 Sep 2013