9 Apr 2015

Election 2015: what drives the ethnic minority vote?

Ethnic minority voters have traditionally favoured Labour with their support. But in an age of social media, competition for their votes is increasing, writes Toby Bakare.

Pictured above: The Operation Black Vote bus

In 2010, 16 per cent of BME voters voted Conservative, a figure way below the 36 per cent who voted for them among the electorate at large.

Labour were the opposite, securing 68 per cent, way above their national average of 29 per cent.

What drives the ethnic minority vote? Join the debate on Twitter #minorityverdict 

The wide gap has a lot to do with history. The Conservatives, to some, will always be synonymous with Enoch Powell, ‘rivers of blood’, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy. In contrast Labour were known for the 1976 Race Relations Act, equality legislation and for being more open to migrants.

But old allegiances could be about to break at this election.

Ethnic minority vote

“The Tories haven’t won an election outright since 1992 and the world was a very different place back then, the internet hadn’t even been invented,” explains Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank which has researched how the Tories can win more votes from ethnic minorities and capitalise on the fact that the Labour Party can no longer take their vote for granted in an age where people expect competition for votes.

Read more: is Labour's ethnic minority vote holding up?

The Conservatives have responded by making the party visibly more diverse.

James Cleverly in Braintree, Ranil Jayawardena in North East Hampshire, Nusrat Ghani in Wealden. These are all new, ethnically diverse prospective candidates running in safe seats. On this front they are catching up to Labour. Previously, they had 11 BME MP’s to Labour’s 16. In this election they could overtake them in terms of representation.

It may be a necessary way of saying that you have changed but to say having BME candidates wins you votes is a myth. Sunder Katwala, British Future

The Lib Dems have no minority ethnic MP’s to return to parliament and are unlikely to send new faces in May, while the nationalists, Greens and Ukip aren’t expected to return ethnic minority candidates to parliament either.

Mr Katwala is sceptical that being visibly diverse will be more of a deciding factor than a party’s core message: “It may be a necessary way of saying that you have changed, but to say having BME candidates wins you votes is a myth.”

Immigration debate

On the issues, immigration is traditionally what this group of voters is defined by.

Evidence suggest that all parties are putting off BME voters with a debate that blames immigration for social problems. In 2013 the government was widely criticised for “go home”vans, which patrolled the streets of diverse London boroughs and were seen as being anti-immigrant and racist.

But younger BME voters seem less concerned with previous core issues like immigration and are more concerned about job prospects. Unemployment at 14 per cent is higher for BME’s than the national average and recent analysis shows that long term unemployment is up 50% from 2010.

“Honestly, I haven’t seen any parties try and court the BME vote. There’s a perception that we are over-privileged,” says Adam Elliott-Cooper.

He’s a young academic who has researched the history of ethnic minorities in Britain. For Adam the main issue at the election is how BME’s are treated in the criminal justice system; from the anti-terror Prevent strategy to disproportionality in the courts and police use of stop and search. Issues he doesn’t see being addressed by the two major parties.

Read more: musician Apache Indian on the dangers of political complacency

The ethnic minority vote is up for grabs but improving turnout could prove the biggest challenge. Ethnic minorities are historically less likely to vote; 28 per cent of Black Africans, for example, were not registered to vote in 2010, compared to 7 per cent of White voters.

Currently, a campaign bus from Operation Black Vote is touring the nation hoping to redress that balance. Stops this week have included Nottingham and Prayer City in Chatham, Kent, one of the largest black churches in the country.

If the thousands who pray there also register and then get out and vote, their voice could prove decisive.