'The Tories are too white to win'

17 Apr 2014

Ethnicity is one of the main social cleavages around which many political parties base themselves. Ethnicity is an attractive political base for politicians to make use of because ethnicity is an important element of an individual’s identity, and because in some cases it is a ready-made social network to tap into. And because, unlike ideological beliefs which can wax and wane, or class position which can alter, an individual’s ethnicity is relatively fixed. So attractive is ethnicity as a political base that in many states - including almost all sub-Saharan Africa – parties are based nearly exclusively around ethnic cleavages.     


Western societies are complex and variegated, and their political parties reflect that by appealing not only to ethnic differences, but to religious differences, to the religious versus the secular, the rich versus the poor, the urban versus the rural, and to various ideological persuasions. Nevertheless, in many parts of the West ethnicity is an important political cleavage, notwithstanding the role of class and other cleavages. For instance, most of Belgium’s parties are classifiable as representing either French or Dutch speakers, and many Spanish parties can be classified by whether they represent the Castilians, the Basques or the Catalans.

Very striking is the case of the United States, where ethnicity is one of the most reliable indicators of voting behaviour, even more so than class. For instance, in the 2012 presidential election 93% of African-Americans, 71% of Hispanics and 73% of Asians voted Democrat – crushing majorities in each demographic - as opposed to only 39% of Whites. Moreover, the polarisation of voting behaviour along ethnic lines in the United States appears to be deepening. For instance, in 1996 the Democrats managed to garner 43% of White votes, versus the Republican’s 46%, a small 3% divergence. By 2012, with the Democrat share of the White vote at 39%, the Republican share rose to 59%, a 17-point greater divergence than in 1996.  Such figures can overstate the importance of ethnicity as a factor in voting behaviour, since they in part also reflect differences in religion, class and age, and they are altered by the natural swings in party popularity over the decades – but nevertheless ethnicity remains a highly important cleavage after these effects are controlled for. 

Even in Great Britain ethnicity is an important political cleavage. For many smaller parties, appeals to an ethnic group are a central political tactic. Even for the major parties, ethnicity plays some role. Most obviously, the politics of Northern Ireland is entirely – and transparently – based on an ethno-religious divide. Mainland Britain also has several parties which – though in an avowedly friendly, civic-nationalist and inclusive manner – appeal to ethnic identity. Britain’s Celtic nationalist parties – Mebyon Kernow, Plaid Cymru, and the Scottish National Party – appeal to their respective national groups in opposition to perceived English domination of the Union. The two former have achieved a respectable degree of political success, and the latter – needless to say – has achieved enormous success. In the civic-nationalist category also fall several English parties like the English Democrats- though they receive considerably less media exposure and academic attention, and have not been as successful electorally. Nevertheless, in the 2009 EU elections the English Democrats secured 1.8% of the overall UK vote, nearly 280,000 votes – so there is clearly some traction in their political appeal to the English identity and English dissatisfaction about the lopsided nature of devolution in the UK.

As well as those parties which appeal to one or other of the UK’s indigenous ethnic groups are those parties – such as UKIP and the BNP – whose main political appeal is to the native British as a whole, in contradistinction to recent immigrant groups. These two parties, though very different in many respects, both call for stringent restrictions on immigration, and priority in the provision of state services to locals and the indigenous. For instance, the BNP’s 2010 election manifesto states ‘access to education, the NHS, benefits, council houses and pensions will only be available to the British people’  and UKIP endorses a similar policy – in less draconian rhetoric - in its suggestion that foreigners enter the UK on temporary work visas with more limited and insurance-based access to the welfare system and NHS. 

There are fewer examples of political parties that primarily draw their support from an ethnic appeal to Britain’s immigrant groups. This is perhaps largely explained by the fact that there have not been until recently many parliamentary constituencies where immigrants formed a majority or a large enough minority. Between 1989 and 2006 there was in fact an Islamic Party of Britain, though it was largely the personal vehicle of an eccentric convert and never gained so much as a local councillor. More significant is the Respect Party. Though it contains several factions, it appeals most prominently to Muslim voters. Its main figure George Galloway is adroit at courting the Muslim vote, and has in that courtship demonstrated a willingness to step outside the political mainstream, committing acts that most would regard as faux pas, such as his refusal to debate with an Israeli student at Oxford University, and his rather unusual appeals to religious values, and advertisements of his tee-totalism.

None of the major British parties, though they have differing attitudes to immigration, make blatant or one-sided appeals to either the indigenous White British or to immigrant ethnic groups. There is also, compared to the United States presidential elections, a paucity on data on the voting behaviour of different ethnic groups in the UK. A small study was conducted in 1997, but the BESEMS report on the 2010 general election is the main source of data. Its results are somewhat unsurprising. Overall, 68% of ethnic minority voters voted Labour, whilst the Conservatives only gained 16%, an enormous 42% differential. Conversely, 31% of White British voters voted Labour, whilst 37% voted Conservative. Significantly, data analysis showed that the greater ethnic minority preference for the Labour Party could not be explained solely in terms of class differences, meaning that ethnicity itself is an active political cleavage in mainstream British politics. 

Given that ethnic minorities are growing as a proportion of the British population, is it necessary that the Conservatives make greater efforts to appeal to them in order to survive electorally? An affirmative answer to this question is the consensus to be found from The Guardian to The Economist, but I think the consensus is mistaken, and that in fact Labour has more to lose if ethnicity continues to be a significant political cleavage.

With the ethnic minority population standing at around 15%, Labour cannot make ethnicity – rather than class – the primary political cleavage it seeks to exploit. It is therefore unlikely that the Labour Party will focus its main attention on securing the ethnic minority vote in the short to medium term. However, in many urban constituencies, the Labour Party is already electorally dependent on that vote, and cannot adopt policies – however popular they might be with the White British – that would be antagonistic to ethnic minority interests. The danger for Labour if it fails to sufficiently pay attention to its ethnic minority constituents is shown by the spectacular sucker-punches made at by-elections by George Galloway’s Respect Party. On the other hand, since it still draws much of its support from the White working class, Labour cannot appeal too overtly to ethnic minority interests, for fear of bleeding away more support to the BNP or UKIP. The difficult bind the Labour Party is in is shown by its recent half-hearted and abortive flirtation with the nationalistic Blue Labour tendency: it could not endorse Lord Glasman’s strong anti-immigration rhetoric; neither could it forcefully condemn it. In the longer term, as Britain’s ethnic minorities grow as a proportion of the population, they will also become a disproportionately large segment of the Labour Party’s support base. When the ethnic minority population reaches 30 or 35% Labour would plausibly be able to secure a parliamentary majority with its support alone - depending on how the rest of the voting population was divided – and may at that point become a party based more appeal to ethnicity than to class. 

The Conservatives, by being essentially unbeholden to the ethnic minority electorate, do not face a dilemma similar to Labour’s. Rather, in the medium term the Conservative Party is actually in a position of strength in that it is able to appeal unabashedly to the White British vote. At the present political moment, in the short term, the Conservatives are rightly hesitant about appealing overtly to the White British vote. This is because class and ideological differences are still the main cleavages between itself and the Labour Party; many traditional White British Labour Party supporters are for historical reasons psychologically inoculated against any Conservative overtures. Similarly, because many liberal White British voters who do not yet view their ethnicity as politically salient, the Conservatives could cause some disgust and lose some of the centre ground by exploiting ethnic cleavages.  However, as ethnic cleavages become more salient in mainstream British politics – as they are in America and elsewhere – these two difficulties will most likely fall away, and the Conservative Party will, as the standard bearer of the largest ethnic group, enjoy a period of high electoral popularity.

The key to success for the Conservative Party in the medium term is therefore twofold: be centrist on economic matters - so as not to continue to alienate the White British, especially Northern English, working classes. Secondly, both to positively appeal to Labour’s traditional constituents and to prevent being outflanked from the right, the Conservatives must make more serious attempts to ‘shoot the UKIP fox’ on matters like EU membership and immigration. In the medium term, to take soft approaches on these topics is not electorally sensible, since that is a space already occupied by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, not vote winning territory for Conservatives. 

The other political change that will benefit the Conservatives – an increase in the saliency of ethnicity as a political cleavage – is not one that could be easily consciously engineered, but will more likely come about spontaneously and concomitantly with the growth of the political power of ethnic minorities. Once many more London boroughs and councils of northern English towns come under the political control of Lutfur Rahman type regimes – of religious ultra-conservatism, of ethnic favouritism, of corrupt neo-patrimonial relationships with constituents – many White British voters may realise that the political fault-lines have fundamentally altered, shifting away from class issues, and that, as in almost all multi-ethnic societies, ethnicity is becoming a central political cleavage. Many liberal White British voters will then be less squeamish about supporting classically right wing anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-welfare policies.

The increasing saliency of ethnicity in politics is something to be lamented, as it distracts from what I regard as more important class issues, like poverty and material inequality. In the future, we can look forward to our politics more and more consisting of totemic squabbles over halal slaughter, the veil, religious schooling, female genital mutilation, segregation and so on, rather than the substantive class based politics of Britain in the 1940s-1990s. Sadly, given the near universality of ethnic politics in multi-ethnic societies, I think it is a more or less inevitable outcome.

By Marcus Hunt

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