27 October 2020

Does appealing to the Red Wall mean losing BME votes?

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Since Labour’s election catastrophe, in which many of its traditional voters deserted the party, there’s been a recurring discussion about how the party should position itself on cultural issues.

In the Corbyn era those of us who talked about how far the party had diverged from public opinion were often greeted with anger simply for pointing out what had become increasingly clear from the data. So it’s not particularly surprising that Keir Starmer – who appears to be shifting the party gradually back towards the cultural centre – has faced similar attacks from the online left.

Now, I don’t doubt that some of this is just the usual factional quarrelling that festers within broad-church parties. But there are clearly those who genuinely think that Starmer’s approach is costing his party ethnic minority voters. A recent example of this was Nesrine Malik’s claim that “Labour’s unfolding renovation may or may not win back the red wall, but what is certain is that it is losing core voters in the process”, a clear (in the context of the article) reference to ethnic minority voters.

Now, “certain” is a pretty high bar. One would normally expect that any confident conclusion about public opinion – let alone one as confident as to be “certain” – would be based on some sort of evidence of public opinion, rather than a handful of anecdotes from people within the Labour Party itself.

What do BME Britons actually think? Polling their views scientifically has rarely been done in the past because doing so properly requires substantial knowhow and effort, but my firm, Number Cruncher, is now regularly conducting ethnic minority polls.

Our ethnic minority voting intention poll for ITV put Labour on 60%, 38 points ahead of the Conservatives. This is not just a massive lead in absolute terms, but also very close to our estimates of the 2019 election result.

There are big differences between individual ethnic groups, with Indians now almost as likely as white voters to back the Conservatives, but overall Labour maintains a substantial advantage. This is true even after allowing for demographic differences between white and non-white UK adults other than race itself (for example that ethnic minorities are generally younger and more urban than the white population).

What about views of Starmer compared to his predecessor? Our polling, published here for the first time, asked BME Britons which of Starmer or Jeremy Corbyn is or was the better Labour leader. We did not find a clear preference for Corbyn. In fact, we didn’t find a preference for Corbyn at all. A plurality (42%) were undecided, but those with a view preferred Starmer by 32% to 26%.

One of the patterns we’ve become familiar with across the adult population as a whole was repeated within ethnic minorities – Corbyn polls better among younger adults, in this case being preferred by those under 35.

We can say, therefore, that under Starmer Labour doesn’t appear to be losing BME votes, and that BME adults with a view prefer Starmer to Corbyn. Neither of those things point to Labour losing their support, something which, in turn, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The fact is that there are a great many lazy assumptions – from people with a variety of agendas – about where the balance of opinion among ethnic minorities sits. While it’s true that there are important race differences in public opinion (particularly on the issue of race itself), that’s doesn’t mean the cultural left’s viewpoint has overwhelming support. On things like tearing down old statues, for example, it doesn’t even have majority support.

Where these critiques really fall apart is the (usually implicit) assumption that making common cause with the sort of voters found disproportionately in red wall constituencies – rather than antagonising or alienating them –  constitutes pandering to racism. What Starmer seems to be getting right – and many progressive activists get wrong – is that people see an important semantic difference between the principle of opposing racism (or any other type of prejudice), and the specifics.

Reasonable people agree on principle of treating different races equally, but can disagree on what equality means in practice, where the boundaries should be, what (more) action there should or shouldn’t be, and so on. I’ve never heard him (or anyone else) articulate that point explicitly, but people get it. That’s why, for example, it makes complete sense that people can simultaneously think both that enforcement of norms hasn’t gone far enough, and also that redefinition of norms has gone too far.

And – unsurprisingly – ethnic minority Britons have a range of views on this too. It may in some cases be a different range of views to white Britons, reflecting lived experience or other things, but it’s still a range.

So while it’s unsurprising that some on the left dislike Starmer’s pragmatism, that doesn’t mean that ethnic minority Britons are deserting Labour.

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Matt Singh is the founder of Number Cruncher Politics.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.