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Equality and Diversity

November 14th, 2012

LSE GROUPS: Political engagement of ethnic minorities in Tower Hamlets

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Equality and Diversity

November 14th, 2012

LSE GROUPS: Political engagement of ethnic minorities in Tower Hamlets

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The LSE GROUPS initiative, designed and coordinated by Claire Gordon and Jane Pritchard of the Teaching and Learning Centre’s educational development team, forms part of the School’s Maximise Your Potential programme. LSE Group Research Opportunity Undergraduate Projects (LSE GROUPS) brings together undergraduates from across the School in mixed-year, mixed disciplinary groups to carry out a research project, including writing a paper and presenting it at the final conference. The aim of LSE GROUPS is to provide undergraduate students with an experience of conducting a social science research project in groups around a different theme each year. This year the theme was ‘Diversity: London/LSE’. Eleven groups from 13 departments spent the last two weeks of summer term working intensely and enthusiastically on a wide range of questions.

One group conducted their research on the involvement of ethnic minorities in local politics within the London borough of Tower Hamlets.  The creation of a Political Participation Index (PPI) indicated that respondents from a White British background were more politically engaged. However, South Asians have a greater voter turnout rate in local elections.  Interviews with local council workers and councillors suggested that various policies that cater for the community as a whole (‘universal’ policies) and for the ethnic groups (‘specific’ policies) try to foster participation. Survey results suggest that their implementation has had limited success. In this post, the group spells out the research.

Multiculturalism. Assimilation. Diversity. These issues are often discussed in current political debates and are highly relevant to life in modern Britain. Over the past 65 years, waves of political and economic immigrants have enriched the cultural composition of the United Kingdom, London in particular. In 2011, David Cameron famously stated “multiculturalism has failed”. Whether or not one agrees with this claim, it originates in the observation of the marginalisation of ethnic minorities from mainstream British society. How can one gauge the extent of such a social divide? Political scientists have found that better social integration facilitates political involvement. Voting, for instance, is not merely representative of an individual’s preferences, but also their social context, and their sense of belonging to the wider community. For this reason, our group decided to try and measure political engagement as a means of better understanding the extent of assimilation and inclusion.

© Flickr user Roberto Trm

Our focus was local. Previous research attempted to justify low ethnic minority involvement in national politics by underlining barriers such as language, inconvenience of location and fear of racial harassment. However, this focus on national politics neglected local politics, which we believed to be more relevant and immediately consequential on participatory acts such as attending councillor surgeries. Tower Hamlets is a borough of London famous for its long history of accommodating immigrant communities, and for this reason was well suited to the nature of our research. It allowed for the analysis of the political behaviour of individuals across the ethnic spectrum. Using a combination of survey questionnaires, semi-structured interviews and participant observation, this research aimed to answer the question: ‘How are ethnic minorities in the borough of Tower Hamlets involved in local politics?’  Ultimately, 37 local people in Tower Hamlets were surveyed, 3 councillors and 2 council workers were interviewed, and the group carried out participant observation within a consultation event. 

Survey results indicated that White British within this study were more likely to vote in both national and local elections than all other ethnic minorities put together. This did not come as a surprise due to the fact that they are a historical statistical majority.  However, the turnout of Asians in elections is higher than non-Asians. Furthermore, many interviewees claimed that individuals from South Asian backgrounds (composing 38% of the Tower Hamlets population) were particularly active at the polls.  This perception was consistent with our findings: South Asians displayed higher voter turnout for local elections than White British. 

Political behaviour is not limited to the act of voting. This encouraged us to create a seven variable political participation index (PPI) that encapsulated both voting and non-voting behaviour (participating in a protest, signing a petition, contacting a politician, working for a political party, donations).  The index showed that White British were more likely to engage in political behaviour than any other ethnic minority. Analysing the trends between the different minorities once again brought to light that South Asians were more likely to be politically involved in comparison to other ethnic minority groups. This could be because many people with South Asian backgrounds are now second generation immigrants, or have spent most of their lives in Britain. One is more likely to be politically active if one is ‘rooted’ and connected to the host country, and if the ‘myth of return’ no longer holds.

Once the level of participation was quantified, our interest turned from the population to the political elite. How did they encourage involvement? The main mechanisms identified were divided into two groups. Some policies are ‘universal’, applicable to all living in the borough. These include weekly councillor surgeries, canvassing, the ready availability of councillor contact details, council communication through the website and local magazine and local consultation events. Other policies are ‘specific’ and cater for ethnic minorities. These include communications with local churches and mosques, translation facilities, and representative staff from different ethnic groups. Today, in the UK and in Europe, there is a trend towards the ‘de-ethnicisation’ of public policy and a desire to target specific social problems without categorising (and in doing so, stigmatising) the groups or minorities to which they apply. The councillors we interviewed agreed with this, but nevertheless, rely on ethnic minority organisations for two reasons. Firstly, contacting the ethnic minorities is a resource-efficient way of reaching out to a large number of the electorate. Secondly, it increases faith in the political system: embedded social trust is transferred into political trust when the political elite is in touch with community leaders.

However, the existence of policies does not automatically entail their success. In order to increase turnout (and involvement in any other form), interviewees stressed the importance of making every service offered by the council accessible to all. There is an institutional attempt to motivate citizens to participate. Yet, many of our survey respondents were unaware of the existence of surgeries. Even more could not name their councillor. An underlying theme in the interviews was that of building trust with the local people. However, lack of trust was raised by the residents, and especially the ethnic minorities, as an important inhibitor to participation.

In a democracy we are often told that ‘every vote counts’ or, ‘every voice counts’. However the act of voting transcends the individual and their preferences. Our study has confirmed that some participation patterns emerge along ethnic lines. Belonging to a minority group seems to entail being less likely to participate in politics. Our survey results suggested that this could be due to lack of awareness of the political environment and distrust of politicians, despite councillors’ and council workers’ attempts to remedy this.

We can tentatively conclude that there is a certain social exclusion of minorities that leads them not to feel as politically implicated as their White British counterparts. But social exclusion cannot be pinpointed as the sole reason. Although our two week time constraint for this project prevented us from doing so, future research would greatly benefit from doing interviews with inhabitants from various ethnic backgrounds so as to better understand the causality behind non-participation. A sentiment of detachment vis-à-vis the politics of the host country could be due, for instance, to the history and/or memory of political oppression back at home (for example in the case of Eastern Europeans from ex-Soviet countries). The difficulty of pinpointing one particular cause confirms just how multifaceted and complex multiculturalism can be.

Group members: Francesca Cartier, Nizam Hussain, Zareef Anam, Ziwei Tang and Tribeni Gurung

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Equality and Diversity

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