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Why political campaigns that target ethnic minority groups can go horribly wrong

Cul-de-Zac? from

The issue of ethnicity was always going to come up ahead of London’s mayoral elections: if Labour candidate Sadiq Khan wins, he will become London’s first Muslim mayor, and the first minority ethnic person to hold the office.

Meanwhile, his Conservative rival, Zac Goldsmith, has been criticised for running a racially divisive campaign to gain the votes of some British Indians, who make up 6.6% of the city’s population.

The campaign targeted the largely Hindu and Sikh Indian population – in particular, the Gujurati and Punjabi communities – setting them apart from the largely Muslim Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, of which Sadiq Khan is a member. Leaflets describing Goldsmith as “standing up for the Indian community” were considered bizarre and cringe-worthy by some, and patronising and downright offensive by others.

What Goldsmith and his team failed to realise is that ethnic identity is a complex social and psychological concept. Rather than a rigid category based on ancestry, language or religion, ethnic identity is self-defined. What it means to be a member of an ethnic community is constantly being challenged and changed over time, by both individuals and groups. There is no one definition of the “British Indian community”, so we can’t really claim to know about their shared political interests.

A great deal of study has been done on the political attachments of different classes, genders and ethnicities. For example, many have noted the strong connection that ethnic minorities in the UK have historically had the Labour party. This doesn’t necessarily tell us that ethnic minorities have a specific political agenda – just that they are generally loyal to the Labour party.

Besides, the idea that ethnic minority groups support Labour has been undermined in recent years by a shift towards the centre-right – among the British Indian middle classes in particular. The Conservative party has made efforts to increase its proportion of ethnic minority MPs, and publicly demonstrate their appreciation, as it were, of UK-Indian ties.

So, given the diverse and changing nature of British South Asian groups, how much can we really tell about what they want from their elected representatives? Well, in 2010, the Ethnic Minority Survey – carried out as part of the British Election Study – investigated the political views of the five main ethnic minority groups in the UK: Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Black African.

Love lost

Participants were asked whether they agreed that parties were only interested in the votes of black and Asian groups, rather than their opinions. A large proportion of the Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani samples agreed.

They were also asked about their feelings towards each of the main UK political parties. In 2010, the three largest South Asian groups in the UK saw Labour as the best party to help improve life for ethnic minorities, as well as the party that best represented their views.

Although this was more pronounced among the Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups – 74.2% and 67% respectively – nearly 60% of the Indian group still opted for Labour, against 27.5% who opted for the Conservatives.

If we subdivide the Indian group by religion, we can see that almost three quarters of the Indian Sikh sample believed that Labour was the best party for ethnic minorities, with 52.4% of Indian Hindus in agreement. So even if the Indian Hindu group is less supportive of Labour than the other ethno-religious South Asian groups in the UK, the majority are still less likely to extol the virtues of the Conservative party.

From the results of the May 2010 local and general elections, we can see that party attitude aligned closely with voting outcomes: 64% of the Bangladeshi group voted for Labour in the local elections and 70% in the general election. In each case, less than 20% of their vote went to the Conservative party. This was mirrored by the Indian and Pakistani groups, albeit to a slightly lesser degree.

A super-diverse city

About a quarter of London residents are of full or mixed Asian descent, according to 2011 census data and over 15% are of full or mixed black descent. London is an exceptionally diverse city, which explains why mayoral candidates may have thought that targeted campaigning was a good idea.

When South Asian respondents from London were asked about their feelings towards the parties, the Conservative party registered far more feelings of dislike than like, compared to Labour. There was an average 14 percentage point difference across those who stated that they “strongly like” Labour, compared with the Conservatives.

Taken together, this data shows that British South Asian groups are pretty cynical about parties’ attempts to court their vote. Coupled with the fact that South Asian voters – including the Indian group – still take a chilly attitude towards the Conservative party, the survey suggests that targeted campaigning is unlikely to be well received. In a super-diverse city, superficial attempts to cosy up to ethnic minority groups are ultimately misguided.

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