Rise of the non-white vote

Come May, and elections in the U.K. will see more Black, Asian and Minority candidates than ever before, pointing to the growing influence of different ethnic groups in British politics

Updated - April 30, 2015 06:43 pm IST

Published - April 21, 2015 01:10 am IST

“I am asked if I am a Catholic Sikh or a Protestant Sikh,” says Amandeep Singh Bhogal, the Conservative Party candidate for the Northern Ireland constituency of Upper Bann. “And my reply is: ‘Whatever you want me to be.’ That’s an icebreaker. In my constituency, lots of people have not even seen a man in a turban before,” he says.

Mr. Bhogal, contesting for the first time and also the first Sikh to contest from the Conservative Party, knows he will not win. “The party rarely gives first-time candidates safe seats,” the 31-year-old says. What matters is that he now has his foot in the door and has ensured a future for himself in a party that is shedding its old image as the preserve of privileged white men. The party is now seeking both non-white votes and political representation, with 16 per cent of the U.K.’s population now non-white and from diverse ethnic and religious groups, as per the 2011 Census.

To voters in the sectarian hot spot of Northern Ireland, Mr. Bhogal’s message is almost naive in its direct appeal to reason: “Break the mould of sectarian politics and give mainstream parties a chance.” Only a complete outsider would get away with that. His grandfather, a carpenter who came to Britain in the late 1950s, was the guiding light for young Amandeep during his growing years on a council estate in Brexton, Kent. “I strived through years of racism and harassment to join the Conservative party at 15, and serve the country that has given me so much,” he says.

A multicultural polity

For 28-year-old Uma Kumaran, the Labour Party nominee for Harrow East, the multi-ethnicity of her constituency is greatly to her advantage, as she was born and raised there.

A Sri Lankan Tamil, and the only child of parents who moved to the U.K. in the 1980s to escape the civil war in their country, Ms. Kumaran’s public profile was shaped by her work experiences at a pioneering inner city council; at the National Health Service in supporting 66 trusts in England; and as a constituency caseworker with Labour Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn.

In Richmond (Yorks), the Conservatives have chosen Rishi Sunak, an Indian-origin businessman. This is the constituency that elected former Foreign Secretary William Hague, who announced last year that he would not seek re-election. Brought up in a family where one parent was a doctor and the other ran a chemist’s shop, Mr. Sunak, though a first-timer to parliamentary politics, is contesting from a ‘safe’ seat. Although he keeps a low profile, and declined to be interviewed, he is no stranger to India, as he is married to the daughter of Infosys founder Narayana N. Murthy and Sudha Murthy.

The three aspirants are representative of a growing population of young Britons of non-white origin who are seeking representation in politics. Born and educated in the U.K., their sense of being British has been honed in a changing multicultural polity. They acknowledge but do not necessarily share the aspirations of their forebears. Even before they got full citizenship, migrants from the Commonwealth got electoral rights that helped them fight, as permanent residents, against racism and prejudice.

Culturally assimilated in a way that is uniquely British, young Britons of non-white origin are products of a rights-based society where institutionalised racism does not exist in the old way, but where large pockets of economic and social disadvantage still afflict minority groups.

In earlier years of the immigration story, the Labour Party was the natural ally of working class migrant groups. In the 2010 elections, 68 per cent of the Black-Asian-Minorities-Ethnic (BAME) electorate voted Labour, and the party had the largest number of minority candidates in the last Parliament.

For this election, the major political parties have fielded more BAME candidates than in any previous one. The Conservative Party has actually overtaken Labour in the numbers fielded — although they have fewer BAME candidates in ‘safe’ seats.

“Don’t take the colour out of British politics,” is the slogan on an election poster that sports British actor David Harewood with half his face painted white. The campaign by the race equality group Operation Black Vote (OBV) hopes to get more minorities to register as voters.

Under-represented communities

Analysing the 2011 Census, a study by OBV (‘Power of the black vote in 2015: the changing face of England and Wales,’) reveals that one-third of the 573 constituencies in England and Wales has a non-white population of over 10 per cent, and one in five constituencies over 20 per cent. Twenty constituencies will therefore have BAME-majority populations (the study lists BAME as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Black African and Black Carribeans).

For their size and political influence, these communities are grossly underrepresented, the study says, as only three of the 20 BME-majority constituencies were represented in the last Parliament by MPs from BME backgrounds.

Despite the growing presence of minorities, there is no BAME vote bank in Britain. Minority communities are differentiated both internally and across the BAME category, and do not vote alike. However, there are “particular issues and challenges facing BME communities in general,” the study notes.

Broadly put, minorities suffer disadvantage more intensely than non-minority white Britons. This prompted Labour to release a special BAME manifesto aimed at redressing some of the specific discriminations faced by minorities. Ms. Kumaran from Harrow East explains why it is important to focus on the BAME concept. “My constituency has the highest level of diabetes in the country, with a large south Asian community genetically predisposed to diabetes. Therefore, the biggest issue everyone here talks about is the NHS,” she explains. “We need an NHS that is strong and able to look after communities, and not one that is on its knees as it is now.” While all minority groups don’t have the same issues and demands, BAME as a concept is “incredibly important because we know that minorities as a whole are struggling under this government,” Ms. Kumaran says.

On the all-important question of immigration, the Labour Party has been moving right, towards the Conservative position. Mr. Miliband has argued for tighter border controls and immigration cutbacks without spelling out the specifics. But Labour speaks in many accents, and there are several voices on the Labour left who hold strong and traditional positions on immigration that could force Mr. Miliband to reposition his case.

For example, there is no single Labour position on how to tackle declining numbers of overseas students from India and other South Asian countries. Chukka Umunna, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in Labour’s overwhelmingly young shadow Cabinet, told The Hindu that his party is firmly of the view that the visa system should not target legitimate students who come to the U.K. to study “as they bring knowledge and monetary value to the economy”.

For minority groups, what’s more difficult to fathom and respond to is the trend of extremist radicalisation, which in recent years has drawn several hundred young men and a small group of women to join Islamic State armies in Syria. Mr. Umunna attributed this partly to “a context in which young people have multiple identities and have not been helped to come to terms with it”. Acknowledging that as an Irish-Nigerian he has “different identities” himself, he added, “If we want to understand why they go off and do these terrible things, we need to understand why they become radicalised in the first place, and whether we have better ways of helping people navigate different identities.”


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