Accusations from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party that an Asian bloc vote swung the recent Peterborough by-election in Labour’s favour, despite the town being 82.5 per cent white according to the last census, smacked of stereotyping. Nonetheless it raised interesting questions about the relative power of the Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) vote, the extent of support for Labour, and how crucial this might be to a general election victory.
Perhaps just as important are questions around what the socialist offer will be to tackle unequal racial outcomes or work towards eliminating racial disadvantage, how this fits into the rest of the programme for government, and whether such policies are an electoral asset or liability.
A recent study by the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust found staggeringly high levels of Labour support amongst most BAME communities; 80 per cent for black Africans, 90 per cent for Afro-Caribbeans, and close to 100 per cent for Bangladeshis. The latter is a higher share than Barack Obama picked up from African-Americans in his historic 2008 victory.
It comes after years of decline, in which Labour’s slice of the BAME vote shrank in successive elections from over 90 per cent in the 1980s to just 68 per cent in 2010 as David Cameron’s makeover sought to shed the Conservative’s historically-toxic image that dated to the days of Enoch Powell, and eat into Labour’s advantage borne of the days when trade unionists and communists assisted freedom movements in the British colonies.
In modern times the feeling that Labour took BAME votes for granted was widespread, inside and outside of the party. As black and Asian voters diversified their politics the fabled bloc vote eroded. The sudden upswing back to Labour in 2017 is in part a reaction against austerity, where cuts to public services have disproportionately hit BAME communities, and according to Women’s Budget Group analysis, tax and benefit changes have hit BAME women twice as hard.
With demographic trends showing large rises in BAME voters in marginal seats in Britain’s small and medium-sized towns, claims that the ‘power of the Black vote’ (Black with a capital ‘B’ being the old school political term uniting people of colour) could decide over 100 seats — and therefore who gets to Number 10 — seemed to ring true. The message was that the Black vote was up for grabs and all parties needed to raise their game to win it.
The recent renaissance of Labour’s BAME support suggests on face value that the BME vote is no longer ‘up for grabs’, the bloc vote is locked down and that the party doesn’t need to offer much to retain that support and does not even need to advertise its race equality policies to get it.
Such complacency would be both dangerous and a betrayal of the anti-racist values of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. BAME support for Labour is built on a combination of reaction against present-day conditions — black male African and Caribbean unemployment is still twice the rate of white males, and people of colour are twice as likely to be in precarious work — and attraction to the radical democratic socialism presented by Corbyn, McDonnell, and Diane Abbott.
But face value can be deceptive. Despite appearances, the BAME vote is in all likelihood more fluid than ever with weak party affinity, and in that context the Left now has a rare opportunity to consolidate BAME support by delivering on tackling unequal racial outcomes. Surveys show there is an overwhelming desire from BAME citizens for this and, as the non-white population grows (14 per cent in 2011, probably around 20 per cent by 2021, and a quarter of secondary school pupils today) so too are their expectations growing.
Consciousness of white supremacy, and resistance to it, are increasingly being shared beyond the journals of black academics or student societies in the mainstream through authors like Reni Eddo-Lodge, Afua Hirsch, and Akala. Colour-blindness, and the hope that policies to help the disadvantaged will trickle-down equally to everyone in spite of much evidence to the contrary, is no longer an option, especially from a government led by anti-racists.
Failure to act on systemic racial disadvantage will leave Labour’s BAME base vulnerable to the Right, who will eventually come for it again, and the centre in the form of the Lib Dems who might do so sooner. Their vision is limited to an audit or report here, a bit of monitoring there — but it really doesn’t add up to much. Labour already has a wider general commitment to government-wide race equality, but it needs deepening so that the Left can raise the bar with a vision that takes stock of the challenge of systemic racism and aims to eliminate it.
To achieve this the Left will need to be armed with an anti-racism that is made up of both affirmative and preventative action, that uses the levers of state while simultaneously targeting cultural change by winning hearts and minds. A strategy that takes the white working class on the journey by locating the agenda within a class analysis of the common interest shared by the multi-ethnic and multi-faith working class.
Far from fearing this, progressives should relish the chance to push the Right into a losing cul-de-sac of opposition because the Left can win the arguments by appealing to the common experiences of the many. Examples could include tax reforms to benefit the poor alongside fiscal measures to design-out racial unfairness, or extending the Equality Act duties to the private sector, or, more boldly, introducing new positive action plans to have BAME representation on job selection panels backed up by the stick of reserved affirmative action places if that fails. A beefed-up Ministry of Labour with sectoral collective bargaining side by side with distinct equality commissions with strong auditing powers and a brief to work to change negative societal attitudes. It’s all possible.
As Corbyn has argued recently, social mobility is not fit for purpose as a concept because the focus on aspiration shifts responsibility for social and economic outcomes from the state onto the individual. Those outcomes include unequal racial ones, such as disproportionate levels of BME homelessness and invisible barriers that drastically hinder the transition of BME young people from education into the world of work compared to equally-qualified white young people.
There is a need to move the blame from the individual to the institution, from the workers to the decision-makers who do the hiring and firing, and away from the multi-ethnic working class to the affluent white middle classes who are the most segregated segment of society. It is through this class lens that we can make the case for equalising life-chances for all races.
If at every step of the way, the Left proposes a socio-economic policy in parallel to an equalities one, it will become hard-wired into government as one of its central missions. Sure, there will be resistance, but it will shift the narrative onto ground where socialism can build a consensus. If Labour can make serious progress in tackling racial disadvantage it could well be one of the next government’s major legacy achievements, alongside advances like renewing public services and rebalancing power in the workplace.
Socialists are rightly proud of previous race relations laws and the Macpherson Inquiry, but those are laurels which have been sat on for decades. Now is the time to win new victories and, with genuine socialists at the helm for the first time since anti-racism developed in Britain, this moment offers a unique opportunity to heal Britain of its historic racial divides.
This endemic inequality only appears intractable because no previous government has had the political will to seriously take it on. In the next general election, we will have a chance to change that. Equality in its own right is a prize worth having for socialists, but it will also help to earn Labour the support it needs to deliver everything it wants — and that is nothing less than a transformed society.