Ethnic minority representation: looking ahead to the 2015 General ElectionBy Maria Sobolewska on 25 July 2013
The 2010 General Election was an historic one for ethnic minority representation. The most obvious reason for this is that the Conservative party for the first time staged a successful bid to increase their ethnic minority representation in Parliament, thus nearly doubling the overall numbers of ethnic minority MPs. However, an even bigger change brought by the 2010 election was a change of the profile of minority MPs and candidates. Looking at where both Conservatives and Labour placed their minority candidates, it is clear both parties were much more open to nominating minority ethnic candidates for their safe seats in less diverse, and at times overwhelmingly white, areas. Only 14 out of Labour’s 47 and 16 out of Conservative’s 45 minority candidates stood in seats with more than 20% ethnic minority electorate. Both these developments are now under threat as the main parties look to defend their vote from the growing threat of UKIP.
Ethnic minority MPs and ethnic diversity of their constituencies
Before the 2010 General Election, the name of the game for the Conservative party was to detoxify their brand to show a fresher and more approachable face. This was achieved through a mixture of measures: electing a young leader with ‘people skills’, who busied himself ‘hugging the hoodies’; vowing to protect the NHS from cuts; and introducing a few more brown and black faces to the party. Yet, even with all the commitment from campaign specialists and party leaders, efforts to increase the diversity of the party met with considerable opposition. Such opposition is not limited to the Conservative party, nor is it particularly new. What was different in 2010 was that the party leadership made a concerted effort to overcome this opposition and to centralise party selection. This made a difference: despite the ultimate failure to make selection from an A-list of candidates obligatory, 7 out of 43 new Tory minority candidates (two were incumbent MPs), were drawn from this list. Despite some minority candidates, such as Sam Gyimah, still being very publicly and controversially opposed in their seats, the Tories managed to place more ethnic minority candidates in winnable and safe seats than ever before. Having said all this, a huge majority of them still stood in areas where the Conservatives were third, or a hopeless second- mostly in Labour strongholds.
With the UKIP threat rising, the concerns of the party have all but changed. One might suspect the strategies employed to overcome this opposition will be abandoned and if they are not, they are likely to be unsuccessful as the political capital of the party leadership dwindles. The presence of UKIP redirects the attention of leaders and members alike towards more traditional Conservative issues such as immigration and Europe, both of which alienate ethnic minority voters, and push the issues of diversity of representation and a modern and tolerant image further down the agenda. This, as Lord Ashcroft never tires of pointing out, is a mistake. Whether or not Conservatives can persuade UKIP voters that they are a viable home for their concerns is unknown- what is known is that without the support of ethnic minorities in urban areas, it will be increasingly hard for the party to win an electoral majority. They only need to look at the recent US campaign- seemingly decided against the Republican party on ‘demographics’: a US presidential candidate who can neither command the Latino vote, nor the black vote can no longer hope to win, even if he wins a large majority of the white vote, as Romney did. This will increasingly be the case in the UK as the minority population is growing and - something which is all too often ignored- as the younger more tolerant generations are replacing the more traditional electorate. They will start to care that their party of choice is not ‘nasty’ about race and multiculturalism. Whatever the Tories say on multiculturalism is often perceived as being more racist and intolerant as similar messages from Labour or the Lib-Dems. Chasing the little Englander UKIP vote is likely to ring these bells again. The Tories need to keep this in mind if they hope to ever overcome the nasty party image and get the minority vote.
So where does all this leave ethnic minority representation in 2015? This will largely depend on Labour. Eight of the Conservative minority MPs have safe seats and therefore the Tory numbers will most likely remain unchanged The Liberal-Democrats say that they are hoping to bring an ethnic minority MP into Westminster, but as they are expected to have a very tough fight on their hands and their vote is likely to fall sharply, they are unlikely to put a lot of political capital into diversifying their parliamentary party. Labour, on the other hand, is likely to experience a positive swing, winning some new seats, and will most likely have some vacant safe seats as many Labour MPs are approaching retirement. Some of these seats, like the ageing Gerald Kaufmans’ Gorton in Manchester are highly diverse seats too.
This could set them up to increase minority representation- but will they choose to? With UKIP also threatening the Labour vote they may well think twice in 2015. Ed Milliband’s Labour has already shown that it is willing to directly address people’s fear of immigration and did very little to defend multiculturalism. With the other two parties unable to win a substantial proportion of the ethnic minority vote Labour can still take their minority voters for granted. Yet Labour has historically been the leader on minority representation- even in 2010 when the spotlight was very much not on them doing anything on this issue. Therefore, if there is any hope of further increasing minority representation it must rest with Labour.
Maria Sobolewska is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester. She has recently published an article in West European Politics on the descriptive representation of ethnic minorities in the 2010 General Election. Her book The Political Integration of Ethnic Minorities in Britain, co-authored with Anthony Heath, Stephen Fisher, Gemma Rosenblatt and David Sanders is forthcoming with Oxford University Press this summer.