Re-alignment – when long-time supporters of one party switch allegiance to another – is very much in vogue in British politics. Scotland did it. Then voters in a swathe of the country known as the “Red Wall”. Pundits believe Conservative supporters in so-called “Blue Suburbia” are doing it.
Now, there’s a suggestion voters from ethnically diverse backgrounds are at it too.
For decades not being white has been one of the top predictors for voting Labour.
Even in an era of electoral shocks, this apparent link seemed unchanged. But it takes time for traditional ties to sever and the man who foresaw Labour’s troubles in its industrial heartland towns thinks the party now has problems with its ethnic minority supporters.
“My sense is things are changing amongst some minority groups and they might now be voting more along the lines of their other demographics and social views”, says James Kanagasooriam, chief executive of Stack Data Strategy.
“Labour support is beginning to fracture – and fracture very quickly and differently depending on the sub-category you’re looking at. It could be as surprising as the ‘Red Wall’.”
It is a “sense” that other election analysts share – but proving it is tough and the main reason for this is that high-quality data on ethnic minority voters is hard to come by.
In fact, there is less data about people from ethnically diverse backgrounds than any other section of the electorate. The last full-scale academic study is more than a decade old. Three general elections and an EU referendum have happened since then.
So, while we could hazard a pretty good guess at the average shoe size of white voters living within that now infamous wall, the political values of people of Somali, Pakistani, or Nigerian backgrounds are somewhat hazier.
Polling voters from ethnically diverse backgrounds is resource intensive and expensive.
Dr Neema Begum, a Research Associate at the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity, believes “getting a representative sample of ethnic minorities is one of the biggest issues facing the political polling industry and it needs more investment.”
One of the issues is sample size.
An average political poll surveys around 1,500 people. We have represented it here using dots as each respondent.
If we split the respondents, people from an ethnic background are around 14% of the survey – reflecting their presence in the adult population.
But this equates to just 211 people covering dozens of ethnicities.
Let’s have a closer look into this ethnic group and break it down further by the most common umbrella categories.
Just 80 of the 1,500 people are South Asian, 50 are Black and 33 are mixed race.
But within each of those groups there are several individual ethnicities.
For instance, only 12 respondents are from a Bangladeshi background, 16 from the Black Caribbean community, four from a Mixed White & Black African, and six from an Arab background.
The numbers representing each individual group become therefore tiny and it is impossible reliably to consider differences in terms of vote intention and political attitudes.
Patrick English, Political Research Manager at YouGov, says that finding “the right balance of respondents from different ethnicities” can also be tough and “standard methods can struggle to find the right people to speak to.”
He highlights problems reaching people in rural areas, those who are first generation immigrants and those with English as a second language. It matters because “faulty data can lead to faulty conclusions and these hurdles have clearly left a gap of reliable data on the opinions of ethnic minority Britons,” he adds.
So, how can we assess whether Labour’s relationship with its ethnically diverse electorate is under strain? And, if it is, how critical could that be to the party’s electoral chances?
There are three main options.
We can analyse recent voting patterns in places where most people from ethnically diverse backgrounds live.
We can also use the national survey conducted online by the British Election Study (BES) after recent elections. This has a very large sample, around 11,000 people, so while the number of respondents from different ethnic groups remains small (a few hundred) it is better than a standard political poll.
And as a cross-check, polling firm IpsosMORI publishes a sizeable survey of its own, which draws on interviews conducted before and after polling day.
What do these data tell us?
1 – Labour still dominates areas where more ethnic minority voters live
Up to half of the UK’s ethnic minority population lives in just 75 of the 650 constituencies. Labour holds all but five of these seats and in 2019 it won 58% of the vote across them, despite a poor performance nationally.
This is the share of all voters, including those who are white, but in 50 of these 75 seats people from ethnically diverse backgrounds are the majority. In the rest they make up at least one third of the population.
Of course, ethnic minority voters are not one bloc but separate groups from different backgrounds and cultures, and with a range of values and political views.
The data allow us to focus on some of the larger ones. Labour significantly out-performs its rivals in areas with larger Black African/Caribbean and Asian communities.
Dr Begum suggests that “Labour is almost dependent on ethnic minority voters in some parts of England”.
However, most seats that are ethnically diverse are city-based – around London, Birmingham, and Manchester, for example – as well as younger and more educated.
These characteristics are also indicators of high Labour support, so it is difficult to determine how much the party’s vote is driven by ethnicity alone.
2 – Support for Labour has fallen among people from ethnically diverse backgrounds, but it has with voters overall
Let’s be honest, Labour has had a torrid time at the ballot box in recent years. Since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, support for the party has fallen by more than 10 percentage points.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that its ethnic minority vote has declined as well.
In 2019, the swing from Labour to Conservative in the 75 most ethnically diverse seats was just under 4 percentage points, close to the headline figure of 4.6 percentage points.
But that’s constituencies; what of voters from ethnically diverse backgrounds specifically?
The 2019 BES found 59% supported Labour at that election, down from 66% in 2017. IpsosMORI report that figure as 64%, a fall of nine points.
Clearly some ethnic minority voters deserted Labour, but they were not the only ones.
The party’s vote was down eight points nationally. So, the data suggest there was little difference between the shift in white voters and those from an ethnically diverse background.
This is one reason why the pollster Matt Singh argues, just like for white voters, “focusing on factors like education, income and housing can help to overcome some gaps in the data.”
3 – There are fault lines in Labour’s relationship with some ethnic minority voters
Those data gaps still make it difficult to consider distinct political attitudes both within and between groups of Indian Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, for example.
But if Mr Kanagasooriam is right and the fracturing of Labour’s vote “depends on the subcategory you are looking at”, then this is critical to identifying possible fault lines.
Maria Sobolewska, Professor of Political Science at Manchester University, believes “cracks are evident around Brexit, gender and LGBT issues, as well as policy towards Israel”.
Brexit shook the foundations of both main parties’ relationship with traditional supporters. The BES data find Black and Asian voters, like Labour ones overall, were more likely to choose Remain.
But one third of voters from ethnically diverse backgrounds backed Leave and that is more than the proportion voting Conservative at general elections.
In her research on the EU referendum, Dr Begum found people from an Indian background were more likely to vote Leave, and the Tories subsequently more able to attract their support.
“Indian Hindus often make a connection between conservatism in India and in the UK,” she said.
Equality and social justice
Many of Labour’s recently recruited supporters have liberal views on social issues. They tend to be younger, more educated, and more urban, while some ethnic minority voters are more socially conservative.
Such differences present the party with a problem maintaining its current coalition.
The BES asked whether equal opportunities for certain groups had gone too far. For women and LGBT people, Black and Asian voters were more likely than Labour supporters overall to say they have.
One in four black respondents said equal opportunities had gone too far for LGBT people, more than double the percentage of all Labour voters who said the same.
However, their position was not out of step with the general population, except on equal opportunities for people from an ethnic minority background. Here they were much more aligned with Labour.
The question no one can answer is how much this social dividing line will threaten what Prof Sobolewska calls the “marriage of convenience” between Labour and ethnic minority voters.
Whether one of convenience or not, Labour’s “marriage” with the Muslim community had a public trial separation this June.
A by-election in the Labour marginal of Batley and Spen, where one in five people are Muslim, brought tensions about UK foreign policy and race relations bubbling to the surface.
Muslim groups in the constituency wrote an open letter to Sir Keir Starmer warning their support for Labour was now “in serious doubt”.
It said they had “concerns regarding the rising tide of Islamophobia… as well as ongoing international crises in Palestine, Kashmir, Xinjiang and beyond”.
The former Labour MP George Galloway, who stood for his Workers Party, campaigned on those issues, as well as Brexit. He took an astonishing 22% of the vote – from a standing start – and Labour’s majority fell from 3,525 votes to 343.
Mr Galloway is an accomplished campaigner who has successfully targeted the Muslim vote at previous elections. Nevertheless, the result is likely to have caused concern at Labour headquarters.
4 – A splintering of the ethnic minority vote could weaken Labour in marginal areas but a “Red Wall” style collapse is unlikely
So, can a weakening of its ethnic minority vote cost Labour seats at a general election?
These voters are unlikely to splinter in one main direction, like they did in Scotland to the SNP, or in the “Red Wall” to the Conservatives.
The Tories are not currently a magnet for people from ethnically diverse backgrounds. They tend to achieve around 20% of the ethnic minority vote, although they are gaining support from parts of the Indian community. Some people might decide not to vote at all.
On current boundaries, Labour defends 12 constituencies in England (Batley and Spen included) with a majority under 10% and an ethnic minority population over 20%. Among them are Wolverhampton South East, Walsall South, and Bradford South.
Few of these seats have shown much recent enthusiasm for the Conservatives but if the party maintains its current vote, it might profit from a fall in Labour’s.
However, Labour’s ambition needs to be bigger than just holding its 2019 tally of 202 seats. It needs to win some back – at least 124 constituencies if it wants a majority in Parliament. There’s currently no obvious route to that but, if the general population shifts back in its direction, and ethnic minority voters don’t, it could be costly.
A growing electorate
The ethnic minority electorate is growing in size and, therefore in influence too.
The 2011 census suggested one in every seven people was from an ethnically diverse background. Data for the 2021 census is not yet available but projections estimate that figure could now be one in six, with ethnic minority people forming a fifth of the population by 2050.
Of course, to exercise their influence they also need to be registered to vote.
Again, the data are thin but the latest Electoral Commission survey (2018) found around 25% of Black and Asian people were unregistered, compared to 16% of white people.
Labour has raised concerns about the government’s plans to make voters prove their identity at polling stations, saying it could effectively disenfranchise people from certain backgrounds.
Arguably what Prof Sobolewska calls the “huge data shortage around ethnic minority voters” is already creating a disconnect between the ‘system’ and certain communities.
“Increasingly it is in the parties’ interests to know more about them”, she says.
It is essential for those voters too. How can they be represented effectively unless their political views are understood?
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