Now we know for sure. After their stunning, and literally historic victory in the Clacton by-election and unexpected success in the North West on the same day, there is now electoral ‘proof’ – if any were still needed – that UKIP are likely to have a significant impact on the outcome of the general election in May 2015.
So what does this mean for minority ethnic communities in Britain, as the political centre of gravity drifts to the right? Will we be caught in the crossfire, as the mainstream parties look to meet this threat to their flanks by tacking hard-a-starboard themselves?
This is clearly a distinct possibility. The temptation for any party is always to be seen to be responding to what the electorate – or more truthfully, the opinion polls – are telling them in order to broaden their appeal. This is how we get to a situation where the three major parties all start talking about the need to ‘do something about immigration’, though exactly what is still unclear. Given that earlier this year, a poll conducted by The Economist/Ipsos found that immigration has overtaken the economy to become the issue of most concern to the British electorate, this is not altogether surprising. Much like in the media where, ‘committed family man’ = adulterer, bon viveur = alcoholic and anyone leaving politics to ‘spend more time with their family’ = serial adulterer who got caught, when the political discourse turns to immigration, we have learned to recognise that particular code word as a proxy for race.
However a lurch to the right by the main parties would surely be a mistake. For one thing, the electorate isn’t that stupid. They won’t believe you’ve suddenly become an anti-EU, anti-immigration party having espoused different views in recent years. And to paraphrase one Conservative at their recent party conference, the way to defeat UKIP ‘is to explain why they are wrong, not to hint they might be right’. In other words, don’t try to out-UKIP UKIP.
It would also be a mistake for another reason. On recent projections, UKIP could receive anything between 12 and 20% of the vote in a general election. However, due to the electoral system, this will make them a serious player in only a few seats where they might affect the outcome. It may yet be enough to tip the balance, but the possibility remains that their actual impact might not be as worthy of the attention they are getting.
Compare this however, to some interesting research published by Operation Black Vote last year. The 2015 General Election is showing every sign of being one of the closest in British political history with the outcome effectively depending on hundreds, maybe even tens of votes in a few key marginal constituencies. Of these, 168 – or 25% – are seats where the resident minority ethnic population available to vote is larger than the parliamentary majority. In other words, in these seats, minority ethnic voters hold the balance of power.
Whilst it is true that people don’t vote according to clear, homogenous ethnicity lines – especially now that we are seeing the emergence of super-diversity, where the nature of immigration has moved beyond waves of immigrants primarily from the former colonies, to smaller waves of immigration from a wider range of places – it is nonetheless apparent that there is a clear political, not to mention moral, incentive for mainstream parties to widen their appeal beyond their traditional, largely white bases. And if any of the parties need a demonstration of the importance of broadening their bases in this way, they need look no further than the 2012 US Presidential election. Defeated Republican candidate Mitt Romney acknowledged that his failure to court the crucial Hispanic vote, allied to some ill-considered remarks about immigration, cost him the keys to the White House which should have been all but his given the various factors in his favour.
However, to do that they need to do much, much better than now in demonstrating commitment to a modern, multicultural Britain, including looking like it. Sadly, the signs are not promising. For the purposes of gaining ‘inspiration’ for this column I sat through the conference speeches of Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. To add to my punishment, I then read the transcripts to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. And not one of them, in the combined 3 hours of their addresses, mentioned anything meaningful to do with race, diversity, ethnicity or equality. They (mostly) remembered to talk about immigration though. And UKIP.
But the responsibility is not all theirs. We too have to play our part in being engaged, being vocal and involved. Otherwise we run the risk of the unweary sea-bather, wandering into a choppy sea, only to be engulfed by the waves and spat out back on the beach, bedraggled and bemused, no more relevant than so much flotsam and jetsam.
So what should we be asking for? Well a commitment to our representation and delivering on previous promises would be a start. In 2009, Nick Clegg said that if the Liberal Democrats, all white in the House of Commons, failed to change that by 2015, he would seriously consider all-black shortlists. And since? Nothing. The Labour Party has had all-women shortlists for winnable seats for some time. However, all-black shortlists are still as far away as they ever were, and the BAME vote continues to be largely taken for granted (68% of the BAME electorate voted Labour in 2010). As for the Conservatives, I have no hope whatsoever, full stop. Clearly all-black shortlists are still something of a pipe-dream.
However, more realistic would be the adoption of something akin to the ‘Rooney Rule’. This rule, instituted by the National Football League in the US, requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It is a response to the fact that those traditionally given those jobs were not reflecting the diversity of the playing staff, or indeed the country generally. I see no reason why political parties could not adopt similar rules, for example in seats where a certain proportion of the electorate is BAME. It does not guarantee that BAME candidates would be selected, but it would increase their chances and ensures that they could not be arbitrarily kept off shortlists they should otherwise be on. This should be on their agenda because what these parties have clearly not grasped is the reason for UKIP’s success is that they do reflect the views and yes, prejudices, of significant constituencies of the population. And part of the reason that they are so powerless in responding, is that the leaders of these parties, and the people around them, all too often reflect a politics degree – job in a political think tank – political researcher – MP career trajectory that means that they actually don’t know any ‘real’ people, with ‘real’ jobs, who can talk from experience about ‘real’ people’s problems. Having candidates and representatives that reflect the people will go some way to addressing this particular democratic deficit.
The rise of UKIP heralds a degree of danger. Because it is also clear that, apart from a few ‘useful idiots’ from minority ethnic communities amongst their following who espouse the sort of anti-immigration nonsense that would have stopped their own antecedents from making their lives in Britain, it is not a party within which conscious Black or Asian people can truly feel comfortable. However, what UKIP is good at is talking to people in a way they can easily understand and empathise with. And if that means they’re occasionally accused of being racist, or homophobic, or whatever it may be, they actually don’t mind too much as their support tends to rise after each new scandal or faux-pas.
So a more sophisticated response to UKIP than ‘they’re just a bunch of racists’ is needed. The other parties need to put forward policies that connect with their core support and must sound convincing in doing so – if they do that, there is no vacuum of disaffection for UKIP to fill.
That said, we shouldn’t necessarily be too surprised if we see a subtle softening of those messages as the election approaches, especially now that UKIP has another capable spokesperson to add to the ubiquitous Nigel Farage. A foretaste of this might possibly be found in an interesting acceptance speech by new UKIP MP Douglas Carswell. He talked of the need for UKIP to appeal to all British people, whether ‘first or second generation Brits’, by focusing on issues that concern people beyond Westminster. So while there’s still no black in the UKIP pack, there might just be the beginnings of shades other than white. The question is, can the other parties respond and neutralise them with a better offer? That’s the question. And the answer? That’s up to us.
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David Wood writes and speaks on issues of Politics, Faith, Community, Race, Education, and occasionally, sport in Britain, whilst retaining an interest in the politics of the US and the Caribbean. And Croydon. He is a member of the First Martin Luther King Twelve and a School Governor, and has worked extensively on education issues surrounding black boys, community engagement, serious youth violence and interfaith relations. He is Chair of his Trade Union branch, a local political activist and is a cricketer, goalkeeper. Find him on twitter @WoodyDave39