Labour leads the way, but all parties need a radical rethink to win minority votes

Zeeshan Safri blinks into the morning light of Labour’s minority fiefdom in London’s East Ham, watching commuters disappear into the underground station. Their faces, shades of brown.

“Everyone is going to vote Labour,” he says. “Labour is pro-immigration. I am an immigrant. I’ll go for the party that is pro-immigrant.”

In 2010, Labour’s Stephen Timms reaffirmed the party’s grip on the east London seat, where more than three-quarters of the population is non-white, by securing 70% of the vote, practically a coronation. “He’ll get 80% this time,” Safri chuckles.

I was apprenticed to the local paper in East Ham back when the commuters were East End white and the cafes sold bacon rolls rather than birianis. We joked then that Labour could weigh, not count, its working-class majorities. Now, because it adapted to the reality of migratory change, it can practically do the same. But East Ham isn’t typical. Migration, diversity and demography are causing strategic headaches for the parties all over the country.

Ethnic minorities are projected to make up 20% of Britain’s population by 2030 and 30% by 2050, compared with 8% in 2001, and all parties’ strategists realise that new thinking is required, particularly by those who aspire to form governments. The challenge is clear enough, but none have fully grasped it.

“They are beginning to understand,” says Simon Woolley of the non-partisan pressure group Operation Black Vote. “We have visited over 22 cities in recent weeks and registered thousands to vote, and those votes will have an impact. But I’m not sure the parties appreciate just how big a rethink they will need.”

Labour has the advantage of instinctive affiliations going back for more than half a century, replicated down generations, but it faces grassroots discontent that the relationship has been untended.

There are concerns that it has grown reluctant to focus on traditionally supportive minorities for fear of losing support among white working-class communities, and that as minorities shift from the inner cities to the suburbs the party might lose them.

There are also claims that it is less worried about increasing ethnic minority representation within parliament.

Last week those concerns took Ed Miliband to Leicester, and the city’s Peepul Centre, where the auditorium walls were Labour red. The star of his party’s black and minority ethnic (BME) manifesto launch, he was greeted by black and Asian activists and serenaded by a gospel choir. He came well briefed. Happy Vaisakhi, he said, noting the Sikh holy day. “It’s also Tamil new year.”

Miliband conveyed Labour’s generic offer – the clampdown on zero-hours contracts, better apprenticeships, lower tuition fees– and then moved on to specifics: “more MPs from BME backgrounds than any other party”, policy evaluation for racial equality throughout Whitehall, better ethnic-minority recruitment throughout the judiciary, skin-based police stop and search to be made illegal, and tougher laws against Islamophobia and antisemitism. 

After the promises, a cheeky suggestion to Leicester’s family-orientated Indians. Get out canvassing, he told them: “Any weddings, put them off. You know how high the stakes are for your communities.”

Lord Boateng, one of Labour’s first minority MPs and the first black cabinet minister, left hopeful. “There’s no room for complacency, but we do have a track record of addressing disadvantage and discrimination. I think that’s pretty clear.”

Labour also prospers from the relative weakness of its opponents. With the shrinking of the traditional Tory vote and the shift of minorities to Conservative heartlands, party bosses understand the position is unsustainable.

Are minorities conservative? Many undoubtedly are. The problem is party branding – think Powell and his “rivers of blood”, the 1964 Smethwick byelection with its slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” and the Thatcherite warning that Britain was being “swamped” by alien cultures.

A negative brand endures, suppressing and repelling, and new controversies such as Theresa May’s immigration vans reinforce it. Gurinder Singh, a Sikh family man and Midlands businessman, a plain-sight Tory target, cites Powell and Smethwick, and trumpets Labour. “When the Tories say they have changed, I don’t believe them,” he says.

Actions speak louder than words, he says. It is not that Tories haven’t acted. They have 18 ethnic-minority candidates in held seats, compared – at the time of writing – with Labour’s 19. These include Alan Mak in Havant, likely to be Britain’s first MP of Chinese origin. They have been doing things some minorities might like – more action on possible corruption in the totemic Stephen Lawrence case, a review of police stop-and-search powers, and a reduction in air passenger duty, allowing minority Britons to fly more cheaply to south Asia and the Caribbean.

But how to be liberal enough to address the negative branding without ceding the angry middle-class right and white working-class vote to Ukip? How to look tough on immigration without being accused of attacking on difference? The problems are acknowledged. The answers are a work in progress.

The beginning of a Tory answer perhaps lie in Harrow East, north-west London, where the ebullient Bob Blackman reaps significant support from the minority group that researchers identify as most likely to vote Tory – Hindu Indians. Given that Harrow East has a minority population of 60.8%, Blackman probably secured more non-white votes than any other Tory in 2010. For all that, however, the seat is marginal and polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests Labour’s Uma Kumaran may seize it. 

Flanked by the Northern Ireland secretary, Theresa Villiers, and two keen young British Indian helpers, Blackman went canvassing last week, seeking reinforcement from his minority vote. “I spend every waking moment at temples and churches and Islamic centres,” he says. “I have spent five years in parliament telling colleagues that it is not enough to just show up at the mosque or temple once. You have to go regularly.”

Blackman says he can have very Tory conversations on the doorstep. “A lot of Indians talk about immigration, but here it’s about eastern Europeans. The other day I had a Indian woman tell me she didn’t want her kids going to a particular school, ‘full of eastern Europeans’.”

Thakor Mistry, 67, a retired retail executive, explains the differentiation. “Our children were born in this country, so they are not immigrants.”

Of the major parties, the Liberal Democrats seem least able to boast of credible adaption. The party has no minority-ethnic MPs. In 2010 it fielded 41 minority candidates, but none in winnable seats. Last year the activist Lester Holloway, until then one of the most vociferous minority Lib Dems, quit the party citing “its collective failure to promote race equality and anti-racism both in policy terms and within the party itself”.

Others clearly grasp the need to present a diverse face to the electorate. Keen not to be outflanked, even Ukip bolstered its manifesto launch with anti-European, anti-immigration minority-ethnic supporters.

Around the same time, the British actor David Harewood was at the offices of Saatchi & Saatchi in central London, launching Operation Black Vote’s new electoral registration campaign. Harewood, the former footballer Sol Campbell, the musician Tinie Tempah and the sportsman and TV presenter Ade Adepitan all wear white makeup, claiming that Britain loses some of its “colour” when minorities reject or resile from the voting process.

Harewood, a native of Birmingham, star of Homeland and feted in Hollywood, says he is struck that in the US, minorities are seen in positions of power and authority, in real life and on TV. “Sometimes, when I come back here, it can take two to three weeks to see a black person in any kind of authority.” The answer, he says, is engagement. “The only way we can start to change that is through politics.”

Powered by article was written by Hugh Muir, for The Guardian on Sunday 19th April 2015 18.18 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010