Voter registration and turnout is lower among non-white citizens, but politicians need to stop assuming they all want the same thing
As odd couples go, the partnership between the energetic poster boy for grime (and veganism) JME and Jeremy Corbyn, friendly lefty grandpa and leader of the Labour party was quite unexpected.
But why was it funny to see a politician interact with an urban musician? JME is a part of the electorate, and more importantly, he represents a generation of young people of colour whose vote Labour desperately needs to mobilise. While the Daily Mail may have launched their offensive to demonise JME and therefore condemn Corbyn’s actions, it makes complete sense for him to show that Labour is willing to listen to young, disenfranchised black youth. Today is the day voter registration closes, and historically BME voters are less likely to sign up than any other ethnicity. While 86 per cent of eligible white voters are on the electoral register, only 76 per cent of black people are.
Among these missing voices are people that are too young to remember the days when the Conservative Party openly backed racist rhetoric – as opposed to the subtle xenophobia we’ve come to expect from them. The 1964 General Election saw a Tory campaign in Smethwick run with the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. After the Conservatives won, despite a national Labour swing, a British KKK was formed, burnt crosses were posted through the letterboxes of black households, and Malcolm X visited in solidarity with the BME community. This was just four years before the now infamous Tory MP, Enoch Powell, gave his “Rivers of Blood” speech. Inspired by the fear that “the black man would have the whip hand over the white man,” he stirred up fear that soon immigration would lead to unrest “of American proportions” and that rivers would foam with bloodshed. Thankfully, the Thames still runs a dirty green and even now the Conservatives still fare badly among the BME. But this is changing.
Whatever acronym you choose to describe the non-white vote (BME, BAME, or POC) it’s important to recognise that it is not a homogenous group. This is something Operation Black Vote clearly tried to tackle with their recent choice to employ actor and rapper Riz Ahmed and Jamal Edwards of SBTV. They are two popular figures among BME youth that cater to different audiences and ethnicities. But despite the slick Saatchi & Saatchi backing, blacksdontvote.com still doesn’t get to the heart of why certain demographics aren’t voting and the problem is in the wording.
When Edwards bluntly states “It’s a fact, blacks don’t vote” it is hard to disagree. 1.4 million BME voters were missing from the last General Election. The only issue is the inference that if we get BME voters down to the polls, they will all have the same vision for what they want the government to do for them, or which government they want at the helm. Another short video sees Ahmed explaining: “The reason I am making this film is because blacks don’t vote, and by black people I mean ethnic minorities”. “For fucks sake,” replied Twitter which teems with users tired of having to explain why political blackness is not a thing.
Being black is not an umbrella term. Simplifying every person of colour as a black person doesn’t account for the shades of difference not only in skin tone but culture, experiences and political priorities. Of course, BME voters do share the fact they are more likely to be unemployed, are subjected to hate crimes and are stereotyped. But, this doesn’t translate into predictable voting behaviour.
One million ethnic voters helped unlock the door to Number 10 for the Tories in 2015. And considering that in 1997 Labour held around 80 per cent of the ethnic minority vote, a drop to 52 per cent should be a major concern. However, black voters were not key to this win. When you examine the data it is Asians who are flocking towards the Conservatives. And even within this umbrella, Hindus and Sikhs favour the Tories far more than BME Christians, Muslims and Atheists. Other factors such as class and region had a further impact on voting behaviour.
“Being black is not an umbrella term. Simplifying every person of colour as a black person doesn’t account for the shades of difference in their political priorities”
We can pose many reasons for this. British Indian families are far less reliant on welfare assistance and more likely to have a job with a salary compared to black people. Muslims, although Conservative in value, have been vilified by the party. And there is a history of religious disagreements between the faiths recorded. Those based in the South might be better off than in the North. But it may be as simple as showing that you relate to a key demographic. Harsimrat Kaur an admin of Sikh Tories believes that the Conservatives are winning because they are actively engaging with the needs of specific communities. She cites Cameron’s focus on culturally specific policies like relaxing laws to allow Sikhs to wear turbans on motorcycles, on construction sites and in airport security, showed that they were being listened to. “Many have been voting Labour for years but they are beginning to feel their vote is being taken for granted, they aren't getting anything back,” Kaur explains.
While the Conservatives manage to hoover up the upwardly mobile minorities and those who hold specific cultural values, the gap is widening for other parties like Labour to properly demonstrate that they are a party that will cater to ethnic differences. There are more BME MPs than ever before, yet Westminster still feels incredibly out of touch with the lives of young non-white voters. When white working class voters turn their anger towards immigration, UKIP, Labour and Conservatives bent in their favour. But when the black people protest about hate crimes, mass deportations, and police brutality, progress on these issues is slow. There are now several generations of people who have grown up being told that MPs are liars and will do nothing for people like them. If these parties seriously want engagement right across the spectrum of BME voters old and young they need listen to their needs. Corbyn sitting down with JME is a good start but it should only be the beginning of a dialogue between the lost voices of the electorate and politicians willing to demonstrate that they truly care.
If these parties seriously want engagement right across the spectrum of BME voters old and young they need listen to their needs and come through on their promises. For now, young BME brits should demonstrate that they wield significant political power and are worth listening to. Register, vote, and make them listen to your needs.