Black and Asian Britons should not be treated as a bloc

‘People do not vote as a bloc, and ethnic or racial groups—and often individuals within these groups—contain a multitude of political opinions’

David Swift

The improved performance of loser-elect Donald Trump among Latino, Black and Muslim voters at the recent US Presidential Election has encouraged a wave of punditry on both sides of the Atlantic on the shifting allegiances of different ethnic groups.

A general problem with this is the obvious fact that people do not vote as a bloc, and that ethnic or racial groups—and often individuals within these groups—contain a multitude of political opinions. A specific problem with this kind of analysis in the UK is that the relatively small numbers makes accurate polling of the views of ethnic minorities notoriously difficult.

In the US, for example, “Latinos” constitute almost 20 per cent, and African Americans around 14 per cent, of the population. In the UK, by contrast, British Asians make up only 7 per cent, and African or Caribbean Brits merely 3 per cent of the population. Therefore, surveys need to poll a very large number of people in order to reach anything like a decent sample size.

Nonetheless, we can roughly estimate that most ethnic minority groups in the UK have large majorities in favour of the Labour Party. But a closer examination of the breadth of economic, political and cultural opinions among the people who make up these groups suggests that loyalty to Labour is often based on an association of the Left with anti-racism and of the Conservatives with hostility to non-white Britons. If the Tories can shake their hard-earned reputation for racism, there is plenty of evidence to suggest they can make inroads with Asian and Black Britons, just as they have done with the white working class over the past two elections.

Since the 1980s, sociologists have noted that black people in the UK are often less economically left-wing than many whites. In his seminal There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, Paul Gilroy warned that Black Britons “remain suspicious and distant from the political institutions of the working-class movement” such as trade unions, and that “many of the younger people in black cultural production haven’t had any exposure to radical political movements at all”. Sociology professor Gargi Bhattacharyya attributes the unhappy experiences of many black and Asian Britons when it comes to the state as leading many “dark-skinned folk of varying hues to embrace the promise of neoliberal subject-hood with enthusiasm” and argues that “if anything, there is more vocal enthusiasm for some kinds of markets among black and minority populations” than among whites.

Among younger Britons generally, there is less sympathy towards the idea of jobs for life, trade unions, and certain aspects of the old welfare state. This suggests that traditional left-wing economic policies around industrial policies, taxation and welfare spending may be inadequate to win support from Black and Asian Britons going forward.

There is also a noted tendency, particularly among African and some Asian Brits, to send their children to independent schools, or at least aspire to do so, and this has led to a generation of young BAME Britons who don’t feel the antipathy towards private education that is an important shibboleth for the Labour Left, as reflected in last year’s Labour Party Conference pledge to abolish private schools.

The YouTuber “KSI”, who attended independent schools alongside his brother, says that his parents “worked so hard . . . and they put all their money into us”, invoking the language of sacrifice and striving traditionally used by Conservatives to justify private education.

Nor is the language of class snobbery unique to white people. Earlier this year, the former England football player Eniola Aluko attracted criticism after she posted a series of tweets criticising the government’s furlough scheme as fostering a “do-nothing” mentality and a “culture of entitlement”.

Outside of economics, there is evidence that many Black and Asian Britons are particularly conservative on cultural issues: an investigation by the Theos thinktank found that London—often assumed to be the most liberal part of the UK, yet also the most ethnically diverse—had more conservative attitudes on the whole than the rest of the UK. Nearly a quarter of Londoners say that sex before marriage is wrong in some cases, and 29 per cent say the same of same-sex
relationships, compared to just 13 per cent and 23 per cent of people outside of London.

A 2018 BBC survey of 2,000 British Asians found that while almost half—43 per cent—of respondents felt same-sex relationships were acceptable (down from 75 per cent of the British population as a whole), 36 per cent stated such relationships were “unacceptable” (compared to 15 per cent of the UK as a whole). Somewhat dispiritingly, there was not much variation according to age: 42 per cent of those aged 55+ said they accepted same-sex relationships, compared with 43 per cent of the 35-54 age group, and just 44 per cent of those aged 18-34.

This is reflected in occasional high-profile incidents, such as the dismissal last year of Shila Iqbal from the soap opera Emmerdale due to old tweets with homophobic and racist language, and of Seyi Omooba from a stage adaption of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, for writing on social media that she did “not believe you could be born gay [and] I do not believe homosexuality is right, though the law of this land has made it legal”.

Perhaps surprisingly, these conservative views also hold when it comes to immigration. A 2013 NatCen poll asked first and second generation migrants whether they thought immigration was good for the economy: only 26 per cent agreed, 25 per cent felt it had been neither good nor bad, and fully 48 per cent felt it had been detrimental to the British economy. The same survey asked whether they thought the numbers of immigrants should increase, stay the same, or decrease, and merely 8 per cent wanted immigration numbers to increase, 31 per cent wanted it to stay at the same level, and 60 per cent wanted the numbers to come down.

These attitudes on economics and culture have not been sufficient for the Conservatives to make sizeable inroads among the UK’s non-white electorate thus far. In the short term, according to the best estimates, it is only among British Indians and British Jews that the Tory party can realistically expect to win a majority of support, and the departure of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader may diminish their prospects with the latter. Nonetheless, given the volatility of the electorate over the past few elections and the crumbling of the “Red Wall”, it is clear that Labour cannot take these voters for granted, and the Tories have the potential to make progress, if they can shake their residual reputation for hostility to non-white Britons.

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