Upwardly mobile ethnic minority voters are more likely to turn Tory, claims new research by thinktank Demos. But Dr Maria Sobolewska questions the methodology of the study and the validity of the conclusions.
Demos has published a report on whether the Conservatives could avoid Romney’s famous death by demographics, and attract enough ethnic minority votes to tilt some crucial marginal seats in their favour.
Apart from any gripes with the report’s methodology (such as that it does not use the largest, most recent and reliable study of ethnic minority voting pattern), this study is wrong on some points, simplistic on others and plain unimaginative on most.
So what does Demos get wrong? It claims that the support for Conservatives among ethnic minorities is going up. It is not.
Between 1997 and 2010 the Conservatives’ vote among minorities went up by 6% from 10% to 16%,. But there was a 4% rise in Conservative support overall so in reality the Tories gained no extra ground with minorities – the extra 2% gain is not statistically distinguishable from zero.
This figure of 16% persists in 2014, based on the YouGov study the new Demos report uses; so again, there has been no movement since the 2010 election (though the Conservatives can take some comfort from the fact they have not gone backwards).
The report claims that the Conservatives are gaining the most ground amongst the Indian minority, but there is little evidence for this – support among Indians rose by the same amount (6%) as it did among other minority groups.
The fact that Conservative gains were more or less evenly distributed among all minority groups strongly suggests that this was the product of national shifts in mood, rather than a specific change in the Conservatives’ appeal to ethnic minorities.
Why is the Demos report simplistic? The Demos report hangs all the hopes for the Tories on demographic trends. Stories about how the Conservatives can be saved by demographic change risk falling into the same deterministic trap as stories about how demographic change is dooming the party.
Yes, the minorities who live in ethnic clusters are more likely to turn out to vote – and by extension those who move away are less likely to vote. And yes, the overall Labour loyalty among minorities is not quite as knee-jerk as it was a few years ago.
However, with most of the ethnic minorities being much younger than the general population, this trend is not a surprise: young people do not start off with strong partisan attachments, but develop them over the years. What is reassuring for Labour and worrying for others is that those with no party attachment are most likely to simply stay home (as many young people do) rather than vote against Labour.
Black swan events like Bradford West excluded, Labour can mostly win seats with large ethnic minority populations on low turnout (like the Manchester Central one recently), as the drift in the minority population is towards indifference – not support for the opposition.
Also – and perhaps most importantly – the young minority voters who may be more ‘up for grabs’ for other parties, are also more likely to think there is widespread racial prejudice than their immigrant parents.
Our research has found that this sensitivity makes them more likely to vote for Labour and less likely to vote Tory. Recent Conservative campaigns on immigration – in particular the notorious “go home” vans” – may have a particularly negative effect on these voters, who are much more aware of, and sensitive to, prejudice in British society.
Why is the Demos report unimaginative? The Demos report harks back to the long standing hope that conservative (with a small c) South Asian communities- especially of middle class Indian background- will provide crucial votes for them.
This argument has been made since at least the 1992 election, when John Major went around visiting mosques, but to date there is no evidence that the social conservatism of minorities has any effect on their vote choices. The Indian support for the Conservatives is stable (see the point above about the national swing) and is mostly contained to those Indians of Hindu background – with Sikhs much less to abandon Labour. This is a community that is not growing as fast as the Pakistani or African minority.
Being middle class or a small businessman should theoretically make minorities more Conservative. But as we showed, since 2005 the issues where minorities and the Conservatives hold similar views are not actually the issues minorities prioritise in deciding who to vote for. In addition to this discrepancy, they find a lot of the Tory agenda irrelevant (like Europe) or alienating (like immigration).
So, with this apparent failure to convert middle class, business owning and educated minorities of conservative Asian background into more Tory voters, what can the Conservatives do?
This requires some thinking outside the box, but the higher levels of Indian support do offer some lessons for the Conservatives. First of all, the middle class Indians who vote for Conservatives are most likely drawn from the African-Indian immigration waves in the 60s and 70s.
These immigrants were on average more middle class and better educated than those who came from the subcontinent. This pattern of highly educated, middle-class migration is being seen again in the more recent black African migration.
Unlike Pakistani and Bagladeshi immigration, which mostly originates from family reunification, Africans are the likeliest immigrant group to come for purposes of education. Despite the popular impression, this is a larger source of immigration from Africa than refugee and asylum seekers from conflict zones. These migrants often come from elite families, or at least from Africa’s fast growing urban middle classes.
Additionally, African immigration is the newest wave of immigration, and hence the Conservatives are not burdened by the memories of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher when appealing to them. On paper this group is one of the most loyal to Labour, but since this link is newer it may be easier to sever. Since the Tories drew a lot of their new ethnic minority MPs from African background this should not be much of a surprise to them.
Finally, what’s the real hope for the Conservatives? There are two things that Tories can do to change their current poor standing with ethnic minorities.
First of all forget about the small group of middle class Indians and ‘small c’ conservative Asians, and try to reach a wider section of the ethnic minority electorate. This could include the African minority, as I described above. But this can only be achieved through a real change in the Tory agenda.
And this is the second thing the party must do: deliver genuine policy change to build credibility with minority voters. Tories did try to address their no-go image among minorities before the 2010 election and managed to get a record number of Tory ethnic minority MPs elected. This may have gone some way to address the image of the Conservatives as an exclusively white party.
But, since the great majority of British ethnic minorities are not represented by these MPs, and they never see them address ethnic minority concerns (which the government does its utmost to avoid, like in the case of stop and search reform), the difference will be small here too.
Most of the ethnic minorities in this country perceive prejudice and discrimination as a problem and there is no way around the fact that the Labour party has spoken and acted on this issue far more frequently, and effectively, than the Conservatives.
The truth is that minority vote, regardless of what ethnicity or class they are and where they live is still Labour’s to lose and Labour’s to win back.
Were the Tories really to engage with the issue of persistent prejudice and discrimination, they may level the playing field on this front. But the long game may be their best and only hope.
Without real change, they risk going ever further backwards, as the minority population of Britain continues to rise sharply.