Britain general election: Is the minority vote, once Labour's, up for grabs?

In Britain's general election scheduled for May 6, minority voters are expected to have a greater impact than ever before. Conservatives are wooing black and Asian voters – once solidy pro-Labour – with policies they say are family- and business-friendly.

Stefan Rousseau/AP
Labour's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, right, Conservative leader David Cameron, center, and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, left, prepare to take part in Britain's second televised election debate, in Bristol, England, April 22.

Fighting for every vote in a British general election campaign that threatens to shatter the age-old hold on power held by the Labour and the Conservative parties, British politicians are now facing another mold-breaking moment – the potentially decisive role of ethnic minority voters.

Amid a sea change in the makeup of Britain’s electorate, voter registration among British ethnic minorities is approaching the levels of white voters, while turnout in Asian communities, most immigrants from India and Pakistan, is expected to be well in excess of the national average.

It’s a factor that has already seen the Conservative Party launch a major bid – with parallels to the US Republican Party’s attempts under George W. Bush to woo Latinos – to win over traditionally Labour-supporting ethnic-minority voters. The Conservatives are emphasizing a commitment to family values that they hope will appeal to minority voters and are touting changes that will make it easier for minorities to start their own businesses.

“In terms of the traditional turnout [among nonwhites], it has been very high for Labour, but I think it is being chipped away at,” says Ashok Viswanathan of Operation Black Vote (OBV), a nonpartisan political campaign working to address the underrepresentation in politics of ethnic minorities. “This was always going to be a game-changing election but in many ways this is now a three-horse race and the black vote could quite conceivably go to the Tories or the Liberal Democrats.”

All three major party leaders have been invited on Wednesday to "Black Britain Decides," a London rally organized by OBV.

The Labour Party on Monday sought to underline its credentials as the political standard bearer for Britain's ethnic minorities when it launched a specific Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) manifesto, highlighting the government’s efforts to tackle racial prejudice and improve social mobility.

The British Obama?

Sitting alongside Chuka Umunna, a young black candidate frequently saddled in the press with the sobriquet of "Britain’s Obama," the presence of both Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman underlined the importance the ruling party attaches to ethnic minority votes.

Labour can boast the best record of the big three parties when it comes to black and Asian representation. Following the general election of 2005, it had 13 black and Asian Members of Parliament compared with just two in the Tory party and none in the Liberal Democrats.

This time around, however, the Conservative Party has won credit from OBV and others for attempts to ensure that its lineup of would-be MPs more closely reflects 21st-century British society. Critics charge that its efforts are driven more by public relations than a genuine commitment to diversity.

The party is also targeting traditionally Labour-supporting voters from ethnic minority backgrounds.

They include the east London area of Limehouse and Poplar, home to some of the most extreme inequalities of any British constituency, where the gleaming skyscrapers in London’s financial hub of Canary Wharf tower over decaying public housing.

In an area where Bangladeshis are the dominant ethnic minority, at 35 percent of the population, would-be Conservative MP Tim Archer believes that the message of David Cameron’s rebranded party will chime with Asian voters who have always been conservative-minded, if not Conservative voting.

Asians leaving Labour?

Handing out leaflets from behind a stall at a busy weekend street market, the former banker explains that the antiwar Respect Party of George Galloway proved in 2005 that Asian voters could be “unlocked” from Labour in a neighboring east London constituency where the maverick left-winger became an MP.

Since that result, Respect has suffered from internal divisions while many observers believe Mr. Galloway lost credibility among many British Asian voters after his participation in a celebrity version of Britain’s "Big Brother" reality television series, in which he appeared wearing a red leotard.

“There is a real opportunity now for the Conservatives to win over Asian voters who don’t want to return to Labour,” says Mr. Archer, now tipped by bookmakers as the favorite in a race between himself, Galloway, and the Labour incumbent, government minister Jim Fitzpatrick.

As well as appealing to the traditional family-centered values of many in ethnic-minority communities, the Tories are also brandishing their commitment to entrepreneurship as a means of tackling racial inequalities.

Cameron recently cited research showing that almost one-third of black people in England want to start their own business, compared with just 9 percent of the white population. Only 4 percent of black people manage to launch a startup, however – a level lower than any other ethnic group.

Separate statistics underline just why it is in the interest of all three major parties to increase their appeal to ethnic minority voters. Although ethnic minorities are 10 percent of the population, at least 25 parliamentary constituencies exist where more than 40 percent of the population were categorized as being from an ethnic minority in Britain’s 2001 census.

Whether the MPs in the newly elected Parliament come close to reflecting the 10 percent of society who are of ethnic-minority origin is another matter.

Despite the potentially mold-breaking surge in support for the Liberal Democrats during this campaign, voices associated with both Labour and the Tories have suggested that the parties are less than a breath of fresh air when it comes to ensuring that the next Parliament reflects modern Britain.

A report in the left-of-center Guardian newspaper claimed that one consequence of a Liberal Democrat breakthrough would be the squeezing out of high-profile black candidates running for the Tories and Labour.

Only four minority candidates are fighting for one of the Liberal Democrats' top 100 targeted seats, it added.

On the other hand, a separate report in the same paper claimed that Nick Clegg’s party was the only one of the big three to have produced a substantial policy designed to tackle inequality on issues such as Britain’s DNA database, in which people from ethnic minority backgrounds are substantially over-represented.

Mr. Clegg said in an article for the OBV website on Tuesday that he has been concentrating on making the Liberal Democrats more diverse since becoming leader two years ago, but added that none of the major political parties including the Liberal Democrats have "done enough."

He said that he had learned of the 'dangers of intolerance' from his Dutch mother, who spent several years in a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, while his grandmother had been forced to flee her home in St Petersburg during the Russian Revolution.

Mr Clegg added: "I know that none of the major political parties have done enough to make themselves as diverse as we should be. What we've found is that the problem for the Liberal Democrats isn't really about getting candidates selected for seats - it's getting them to come forward in the first place."

(This story was updated after posting to correct the spelling of Conservative candidate Tim Archer's name.)


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