Richard Webber and Trevor Phillips argue that by 2050 more than half of Labour’s voters will be from a background other than white British. What implications will this have for Labour’s ability to achieve a Westminster majority and for the party’s character, image and appeal?
Since the unexpectedly strong showing of the Conservatives at the May 2015 general election the focus of political discussion has been primarily on Labour’s struggle to maintain support among the more socially conservative of its traditional supporters. Whereas Labour’s share of the vote went up in most large English cities, it is the challenge of reconnecting with financially stretched but materially aspirational electors living outside big cities that self-defines the candidates for the new leadership of Labour. By comparison little attention has been given to the implications, both in 2015 and in the future, of the ever increasing share of British voters of non-white British origin.
Before the election the growing importance of this demographic was foreseen to pose a serious problem for both main parties. Lord Ashcroft speculated that if the population share of the minority community were to increase as projected from 14 per cent at present to between 20 per cent and 40 per cent in 2050, it would be possible for the Conservatives to win an overall Westminster majority only if they could succeed in raising their share of the non-white minority vote above a seemingly unyielding ceiling of 16 per cent.
For Labour the question was whether, as second and subsequent generation minority electors became more financially secure, they would increasingly cast their votes on the basis on class and economic self-interest rather than, as at present, on the basis of the traditional allegiances of their extended families or community elders.
Our broader analyses of a wide range of behaviours of minority groups has led us to believe that it takes many more generations than commentators often suppose for the behaviours of people of non-white British background to converge with those of the host population. That this belief is also relevant to voting is supported by the Conservatives’ inability to achieve significant support among the fourth or fifth generation descendants of 19th century Irish immigrants or in communities where, despite the closure of coal mines two or more generations ago, social attitudes continue to be influence by the legacy of mining.
Our broader analyses also suggest that, to a much greater degree than is often realised by social commentators, voters’ behaviour is significantly affected by the social profile of the neighbourhoods in which they live. Politics being among the most popular topics of neighbourly discussion, notwithstanding the inroads of social media, voting decisions are at least as much influenced by what neighbours consider to be in their interest as by the supposed interests of an elector’s economic class. We believe the ongoing decline of the influence of the trades unions in the workplace will further reinforce this trend.
The implications of these beliefs is that the level of middle class non-white British defection will depend on future patterns of residential dispersion. What is relevant is that black and other non-British middle class members, just as is the cases with the Irish, currently eschew the lifestyle attractions of the semi-rural commuter village in favour of metropolitan suburbs dominated by liberal middle class elites is a bulwark against their defection.
In 2015 this was reflected in Labour’s relatively strong showing in London, where it captured Hammersmith, Enfield North, Ilford North and Ealing Central from the Conservatives. Two other important demographic trends contributed to these results. One was the acceleration between 2001 and 2011 of the exodus of London’s white population and its replacement by members of minority ethnic groups. The other was London’s housing crisis, an impact of which has been an acceleration in the suburbanisation of minority populations, previously housed in Inner London, to the middle and outer rings of London where these gains were made.
But it is to Labour’s benefit that there is a visible reluctance of almost every minority ethnic group to suburbanise beyond the metropolitan edge into semi-rural commuter village. This helps Labour by concentrating minority voters in places which it is helpful for Labour for them to be.
It would be a mistake however to see the implications of these trends, mostly favourable to Labour in the long term, as being relevant just to psephology – they have equal if not greater implications for defining the future character, image and appeal of the Labour party.
For example we have estimated that by the middle of the century the proportion of Labour voters who have originated from minority communities is likely to exceed 50 per cent. The question that then arises is what proportion of Labour MPs should come from minority ethnic groups if the party’s parliamentary representative to be typical of its supporters at large. Before 2015 it Labour had one minority MP for every 140,000 Labour minority voters, but one white MP for only every 28,000 white Labour voters.
Were the diversity of its MPs to be representative of Labour voters, as these groups will confidently demand that it should, this must surely add further to the difficulty Labour has re-connecting with electors in former coalfields and the other small non-metropolitan industrial centres, seats such as Crewe, Wrekin, Loughborough and Peterborough which it is vital for Labour to re-capture if it is command once again a parliamentary majority.
If, as at present, upwardly mobile members of minority communities continue to prefer to live in close proximity to Labour supporting metropolitan elites, in Hampstead and Kilburn, Hornsey and Wood Green, Ealing Central and Dulwich then the communality of interest and concern that these two groups identify is likely to further estrange Labour from the socially conservative historic non-metropolitan voters subverted so successfully by UKIP and the SNP in 2015.
More detailed statistics and references can be found in the extended paper published in the July 2014 Demos quarterly review of which this is an edited and updated version.
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Richard Webber is a Visiting Professor, Department of Geography, Kings College London. A former Director of Experian he is the originator of two systems used by political parties for campaign targeting, Mosaic, a postcode classification system, and Origins, a system which infers cultural background from personal and family names.
Trevor Phillips is journalist, broadcaster, writer and former Chair of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights. In March 2015, Channel 4 aired ‘Things We Won’t Say About Race (That Are True)’, a feature-length documentary written and presented by Phillips and co-produced by Pepper Productions and Outline Productions.