Race and the general election: is it a choice between ‘culture war’ and silence?

Race has often hit the headlines over the last four years – yet how much it will feature in an election year is unpredictable.  The Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests put race on the agenda, but there was a starkly polarised political argument over the Sewell Report.  

Britain’s growing diversity means there are more ethnic minority voters than ever before in a fast-changing political landscape. Will Rishi Sunak being Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister help the Conservatives advance further with British Indian voters? How far will the pressure on Keir Starmer over his response to the Israel-Palestine conflict disrupt Labour’s traditional strength with Muslim voters in particular?

Yet debates about ethnic minority voting are often anecdotal, not least because evidence is patchier on ethnic minority voters than for any other electoral demographic. Pollsters do not yet routinely report on ethnicity as they do for gender and geography, age and social class, for example. 

Two useful new studies are filling some of the gaps. By aggregating historic polling data, Ipsos have produced estimates for ethnic minority party support going back to the mid-1990s. A major new contemporary study from Focaldata/Kings College, to be published next year, previewed in a new report out today, will illuminate the diverging patterns across different minority groups.

There is a long history of Labour strength and Conservative weakness with ethnic minority voters. Ipsos shows a stable pattern with Labour invariably holding more than six out of ten ethnic minority voters. The Conservative 16 per cent share under Sunak – one in six votes – is the same as it was in 2010.

Yet Labour has no grounds for complacency about its share of ethnic minority voters – which it may find much harder to retain beyond this General Election.  The long-term reason is that party identification – which was much stronger among ethnic minority Britons than the white British as late as 2010 – is much weaker among the second and third British-born generations. Labour’s broad support reflects the breadth of a ‘time for a change’ message, but could easily prove much more fragile beyond it.

The Conservatives have been about half as likely to win an ethnic minority vote as that of a white British voter. Ipsos suggests that David Cameron closed that gap before it grew again after Brexit.  More ethnic minorities backed Brexit – around a third – than had ever voted Conservative. Yet the Conservatives had much less success in converting Labour Leavers among ethnic minorities than among the majority group: post-Brexit polarisation put off the young, upwardly mobile graduate voters who were more favourable to Remain. 

As James Kanagsooriam notes, while being a university graduate is associated with being more likely to vote to the left, among ethnic minorities the pattern is reversed. Black and Asian graduates are more likely to vote Conservative than non-graduates. The Conservatives have advanced with British Indian voters, prior to Sunak’s premiership, but the effort to shed the baggage of the past with other minority groups has stalled in an era of more polarised identity politics.

No modern Conservative politician has ever been as popular with ethnic minority voters as Rishi Sunak was three years ago. That was not because he was Asian. As Chancellor during Covid, responsible for the furlough scheme, Sunak’s reputation transcended party allegiance much more than that of his Cabinet colleagues. While Sunak was rather more popular than his party at the start of his premiership, his personal rating has converged downwards to the Conservative score. 

Ipsos now reports no gap in approval for the Prime Minister’s performance between ethnic minority and white British voters – but, in sharp contrast to his pandemic reputation, that has now become a consensus of disapproval.

There is set to be a narrower ‘ethnic vote gap’ in the next General Election – less due to shifts in ethnic minority support as swings in party fortunes more generally. Labour’s vote share among the majority group was well below half of its ethnic minority vote share in 2017 and 2019 – but polling in the mid-40s has closed that gap.  Pressure on Keir Starmer over Palestine has been particularly vocal from British Muslim voices both inside and beyond his party.  Nobody can confidently predict how much impact the issue might have in a General Election a year from now. 

The Iraq war cost Labour up to a quarter of Muslim voters in 2005 – with the Liberal Democrats, George Galloway’s Respect Party and the modernising Conservatives with Sayeeda Warsi as party chair all competing for votes. Labour holds large cross-community majorities in most Westminster seats with the largest Muslim populations, so is likely hold those seats this time around. But the impacts at local government level, and on the formative attitudes of younger voters from Britain’s largest faith minority group, could be significant.

Whether race unites or divides depends on how the public conversation is led. There can be efforts to exploit race as a ‘culture war’ dividing line – yet that could backfire across groups and generations. It can sometimes seem that the choice in politics is between polarising culture clashes or lapsing into silence as the issue falls off the agenda.

The Windrush 100 network, which launches this week at an event in parliament, wants to change that. The many civic groups who worked to bring this year’s Windrush 75th anniversary to national attention aim to sustain that effort, by showing how improving the public conversation about the past, present and future of race in Britain can shift the political and policy agenda too.  

Polling this year found that 71 per cent of ethnic minority respondents – and 65 per cent of the public overall – would support setting a ‘net zero’ goal to eliminate racial discrimination and disadvantage in Britain by the time of the Windrush centenary in 2048.  In an increasingly diverse Britain, every political party will need to find greater confidence in how to talk and act on race. Having a clearer sense of where we want to go as a society may help to navigate the pressures of an election year.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.