Labour is shedding ethnic minority votes which could prove fatal for 2020

Its an honour to be speaking to members of the second biggest trade union in the country, the largest public service union in the UK, a linchpin of our labour movement.

I was reading on my way up here that Jeremy Clarkson is soon to make his comeback. Do you remember when Jeremy Clarkson said all public sector workers going on strike should be shot? 

Well, I thought when he said that – you know what Jeremy – when the indulgences in our lives catch up on us and we fall ill, who is it that treats us in hospital and helps nurse us back to health? Probably a Unison member.

Who discharges us and ensures we attend regular check ups at our GP, probably a Unison member.

So I am proud to be here and I want to pay tribute to all of you for your public service, for looking after our communities, for putting others first.  Clarkson might take what you do for granted - I certainly do not.  So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

And, this is Unison’s Black Workers Conference.  I simply would not be talking to you today as a Member of Parliament - the first MP of African heritage to represent one of the seats covering Brixton -  if it were not for the demands over the years that you and others made for proper Parliamentary representation for the diverse communities in our country.  I stand on your shoulders and I can assure you, I don’t take that for granted either.  Again, thank you.

You are the second biggest union, as I’ve said, but, more than that, you are an affiliate to our great Labour Party.  You are part of the movement which co-founded Labour.  Our founding conference, held 116 years ago next month, was hosted by the Trades Union Congress.

So today I want to talk to you about the future of our party, why there need be no conflict between our Labour values and getting back into office, and why the ethnic minority and diaspora communities of which we are a part are so vital to Labour building a Good Society: one that is fairer, more equal, democratic and sustainable both here and abroad.

Power and principle

Now, there is no point being in power if not to pursue your principles – power for power’s sake is pointless.

Yes, like any party, when Labour was last in power we did not get everything right and too often failed to make clear the connection between what we were doing and our values.

We left outstanding, unresolved issues which Governments had failed to deal with over the decades such as racial inequalities in the criminal justice and mental health systems impacting on our different communities.

And I say “different” deliberately because of course Britain’s ethnic minority communities are not one homogenous whole.  I am part Nigerian - I am of an Igbo background - but we all know the experience of a Nigerian arriving here in the 1960s like my late father  is very different to say that of a more recently arrived Somali.

But look at what we did deliver for the different communities we all belong to.  

We established thousands of SureStart children’s centres to give young black and other children the best start in life - 9 in my constituency including at my old nursery in Streatham.

The number of young people going to university - with more black people going to uni than ever before - up by over 80 per cent in my constituency.

Record investment in our health services, record low waiting times new and improved health centres all over the place.

Our 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act placing a duty on public authorities to promote equality.

The introduction of a national minimum wage at a time when people in this country were earning slave wages as little as £1 an hour.

Labour values delivered in office.

And, we did what the previous Conservative government had refused to do: we set up the full judicial inquiry into the botched police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence which the Lawrence family had long campaigned for.

Reading the 1985 note Oliver Letwin wrote as an advisor for Prime Minister Thatcher on our inner cities, you can detect the attitudes of the Tories in the ‘80s  and the ‘90s which perhaps stood in the way of them stepping up, but we did.

The Macpherson Report which followed acknowledged for the first time what we all knew to be true: that there is institutional racism in our country. It transformed the way officialdom sees racism in this country.

After that, the change we went on to make to the double jeopardy laws in 2005 - enabling criminals to be retried if new evidence not previously available comes to light - paved the way for the conviction of Gary Dobson, alongside David Norris, for Stephen’s murder in 2012.

A year later, Ed Miliband appointed Baroness Doreen Lawrence to Labour’s team in the House of Lords.

So Labour - in and out of Government - was not and never has been just another shade of Tory: the overwhelming majority of what we did delivered far greater social justice in Britain.  That is our legacy and we should all be proud of it.

Read all the equality impact assessments of our policies in government to see what I’m talking about.  By the way ….it is disgraceful this Tory Prime Minister has abolished the obligation for government to produce these assessments on their decisions.

Recognising our achievements in office and the impotence of Opposition 

Now I can understand why, if you have never had the need to use a children’s centre, or if every generation of your family has habitually gone on to university, if you have never been on the minimum wage or indeed your family has never suffered the racism of the police, why Labour’s achievements in office - and I could list many more - might not mean so much to you.  But they made a fundamental difference to the lives of the people I represent.

Why does this matter?  Because there is no glory in opposition - we can force the odd u-turn as we did on tax credits but the Tories are in the driving seat.  A Parliamentary colleague - a North Londoner - who joined the House in 2015 lamented to me, after we had finished voting against the Housing and Local Planning Bill recently, how angry they were about it.  

My response: I share your anger but the Tories have a majority, and until we persuade enough of our fellow citizens - under our terrible First Past The Post electoral system - to vote for us we will be powerless to stop them.  Loads of people in this room - myself included - went on the March 2011 TUC March against austerity, the March For the Alternative.  But, lets face it: it was right to march, it was right to protest but the outcry did nothing to stop what followed:

University tuition fees for our young people trebled; the education maintenance allowance abolished; support for families cut back; a wasteful and costly top down reorganisation of the NHS we were promised would not happen; attacks on the most vulnerable in society with the bedroom tax whilst the top 1% of earners were gifted a big tax cut.  The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, that is the reality of Labour in opposition while the Tories are in Government.

And that is why we must kick these Tories out in 2020, and - make no mistake - we will kick them out with a purpose:  to fashion a politics of hope that brings together all communities around justice, peace and prosperity, for all Britons not just the top 1%.  

The importance of BAME votes

To do this, it is vital we win substantial support from our ethnic minority communities - no party can afford to take any community’s support for granted.  In spite of all we have delivered, too often we have given the impression that we take our ethnic minority communities’ support for granted.  We cannot afford to do this.

According to the House of Commons library, the average parliamentary majority is currently 11,479 or, in percentage terms, 24.08% of votes cast.  In 253 constituencies in the UK - more than 1 in 3 - the ethnic minority population exceeds the majority of the sitting MP.  So, whether you can attract ethnic minority support in those seats can be decisive. 

Evidence from last year’s General Election suggests we are shedding votes from different ethnic minority communities to the Tories.  And we have not a hope in hell of retaining all our current seats, let alone make any enough gains and win the next General Election if we continue to lose ethnic minority votes at the rate we are.

Traditionally, we have commanded huge support from ethnic minority voters.  So in 1997, when we returned to office after years in the wilderness, we did so - in line with the trends since the 1970s - with the overwhelming endorsement of the UK’s ethnic minority communities. But since 2005 the Conservative Party has been assiduously courting support across our different communities and it is yielding results.

Labour is shedding BAME votes

Research published by British Future shows that at the 2010 General Election around 16% of ethnic minority voters had voted Conservative, whilst 68% voted Labour.  A small but notable improvement for the Tories. 

But in the research published by British Future, carried out by Survation, Conservative support amongst ethnic minority voters at the 2015 General Election jumps to 33% - 1 million ethnic minority voters helped put David Cameron in Downing Street, the best result in that party’s history. 

Meanwhile our support dropped to 52%. So an extraordinary jump for the Tories - a doubling of support - and a big drop in support for us.  The alarm bells should be ringing. 

And the British Future findings are interesting. 

We extended our ethnic minority vote in heartland seats which already had large majorities but in marginal seats like Watford, Swindon and Milton Keynes - which we need to gain  to win a majority - the Conservatives successfully extended their appeal to aspirational ethnic minority voters.

There were clear geographical differences as to how ethnic minority communities voted, with the Tories doing particularly well amongst ethnic minorities in the South.

There were different patterns according to faith too.  So ethnic minority Christians and Muslims prefered Labour but Hindus and Sikhs preferred the Conservatives - a clear majority of Hindus voted Tory in 2015 according to their data.

One cannot ignore the interplay with class here.  The Runnymede Trust argues that there is evidence that more ethnic minority middle class voters agreed that a Conservative led government would lead to better economic policy. 

And we learned last week from the provisional finding of the British Polling Council’s inquiry into that the polling organisations got the 2015 General Election result so wrong because they understated Conservative support and failed to reach enough Conservative voters - that will apply to ethnic minority voters too.   

The Tories are catching up fast

Finally, lets take a look at Parliament itself.  The most visible embodiment of Tory change is the number of Tory BME MPs.

In 1987, all the ethnic minority MPs - just 4 of them in the House of Commons - were Labour with the trailblazers Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng.  

In this Parliament, there are now 41 ethnic minority MPs: 23 Labour; 17 Tories.  But, whilst there are 10 more ethnic minority Labour MPs, there are 15 more Tory ones compared to the last Parliament.  Make no mistake: the Tories aim to ensure there are more Tory ethnic minority members of the 2020 Parliament than Labour ones.  

And if they are to make more progress in winning ethnic minority votes, the Runnymede Trust recommends they give more vocal and visible focus to race equality and employment issues.

That is precisely what they have sought to show they are doing.  David Cameron devoted a large chunk of his Tory party conference speech talking about plans to improve social mobility and end racial discrimination, with special mentions for ethnic minority members of his Government.  I doubt they will make good on any of this - they rarely do - just look at how they have sought to water down the statutory remit of the Equality & Human Rights Commission to promote fundamental rights; just look at how their decision to scrap student maintenance grants harms our communities the most.  But, that said, the time for complacency on our side is over.

We need to up our game and I intend to play my full part in making sure that happens.  So today Keith Vaz and I launch an independent inquiry into Labour’s support amongst Britain’s ethnic minority communities.  Keith was our first Asian minister and chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee which we both sit on. 

Our inquiry intends to get to the bottom of why we are losing support and come up with solutions which we will present well in time for the next General Election. We will explore how we better engage, how we better involve ethnic minority and diaspora communities in our mission. Because, unless we do, we cannot properly respond to the needs of modern Britain.  

We will publish the terms of reference for the inquiry in the next few weeks and we launch a website today to which we invite submissions including from Unsion’s Black Members Committee, BAME Labour, our different Labour Friends groups, OBV and others.

We intend to produce an interim report by this time next year and a final report by 2018.

I have spoken to our leader, Jeremy Corbyn, about the inquiry and he has warmly welcomed Keith and I carry out this project.  Kate Green, the Shadow Cabinet member with responsibility for equalities is very supportive and has promised the full co-operation of the front bench.


Let me finish by saying this.

We were the only party in the last Parliament to publish a Race Equality Strategy for the UK.  This illustrates that for all the warm words from the Tories, we are the only party focussed on strategically delivering on race equality for our country.

That strategy pointed to race inequalities in the education system, the rampant islamophobia our Muslim communities deal with every day, the rise in hate  crimes and more which we need to address.  We might have since had a General Election but the fundamental inequalities have not gone away.

The House of Commons library have provided me with research that shows that you are twice as likely to be unemployed if you are of an ethnic background.  The unemployment rate for our young people - it is 25%.  These disparities are totally unacceptable and show how we are wasting peoples’ talents in modern Britain.

So we know the fight for social justice is not over.

As your Greater London Region’s motion today says: we are down but we are not out, and we must snow focus on ensuring everyone has a stake in the future.

You see, ultimately we only ever make big strides forward with Labour in office.  That is why I will be working hard to get London’s first muslim Mayor - Sadiq Khan - elected this year.  But, most of all, it is why we must ensure we get another Labour government in 2020.

Thank you.