Britain’s Tories, Race/Ethnic Politics, and the 2008 Election

crossposted from Daily Kos, Truth & Progress, and My Left Wing

Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 during the American Civil War — when President Abraham Lincoln committed the Union to ending slavery — the issue of race has bedeviled not just the United States to this day but in recent decades, several European countries too as they struggle to assimilate minorities of color in their societies. Progressive-minded parties in Western liberal democracies have long been the home of minorities and immigrants seeking to benefit politically and economically from government policies designed to ease their assimilation into society. Some tangible successes notwithstanding, complete assimilation and recognition has often been elusive.  

As has been true for the Democratic Party since the 1930’s — when African-American voters started to switch their political allegiance from Lincoln’s Republican Party to the Democrats as President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs provided economic relief to the poor — minorities in Britain have long supported the Labour Party for over 50 years.  

Are we now witnessing an electoral drift from Labour to the Tories in Britain?  More on the flip side.

An excellent recent article in the New Statesman magazine highlights the reason for this reevaluation by certain segments of Britain’s minority voters.  Some in Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community are starting to question their unwavering support for Labour.  Is this movement for real or is it a cynical ploy by the Tory Party similar to one often employed in this country by the likes of Karl Rove to sow divisions amongst the Democratic Party faithful?  

The argument made is eerily similar to one heard every four years prior to our national elections and one largely promoted by conservative Republicans: does the Democratic Party takes it most loyal constituency, African-Americans, for granted? And even if one assumes that it does, what explains the fact that the party continues to receive the overwhelming majority of political support from the very same constituency?  

The author, David Matthews, offers his reasons to give Britain’s conservatives, the Tories, an opportunity to win his loyalties.  He asks an important question: is it possible to see a political party as the natural home of particular ethnic groups?  He argues that Labour has long taken the votes of black people for granted when Afro-Caribbean voters have a natural conservatism that could see many switching to David Cameron’s Tory Party.

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David Matthews with David Cameron, Leader of the Tory Party

In the run-up to the 2005 general election, I did an antithetical thing, for someone of Afro-Caribbean origin.  I joined the Conservative Party. I say “joined”, but what I really mean is that I “infiltrated” the Tory election campaign in Richmond, southwest London.  I wanted to find out, among other things, whether the Tories were as washed up as political commentators said they were.  Were they really an archaic, ageing movement cast adrift from modern Britain?  And with immigration the main theatre of the election, how would a nationalistic, right-wing party welcome a black hack from across the tracks?

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To compare the racial demographics of the two countries, the United States is about 75% white with a number of other groups making up the remaining 25% of the population

United States

According to a 2005 American Community Survey, the breakdown was:

* White alone: 74.7% or about 215.3 million.

* Black or African American alone: 12.1% or 35.0 million.

* Asian American alone: 4.3% or 12.5 million.

* American Indian or Alaska Native alone: 0.8% or 2.4 million.

* Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander alone: 0.1% or 0.4 million.

* Some other race alone: 6% or 17.3 million.

* Two or more races 1.9% or 5.6 million.

Each of the above categories includes people who identify their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino.  U.S. federal law defines Hispanic or Latino as any person with ancestry from a Latin American country or Spain, regardless of race.

* Hispanic or Latino of any race: 14.5% or about 41.9 million.

The United Kingdom — for all of the hullabaloo and talk of “multiculturalism” there — is over 92% white, with several minority groups accounting for the rest

United Kingdom

According to the 2001 Census, the ethnic composition of the United Kingdom was:

* White British: 50,366,497 or 85.7%.

* White Irish: 691,232 or 1.2%.

* White (other): 3,096,169 or 5.3%. (Total White = 92.2%).

* Mixed race: 677,117 or 1.2%.

* Indian: 1,053,411 or 1.8%.

* Pakistani: 747,285 or 1.3%.

* Bangladeshi: 283,063 or 0.5%.

* Other Asian (non-Chinese): 247,644 or 0.4%.

* Black Caribbean: 565,876 or 1.0%.

* Black African: 485,277 or 0.8%.

* Black (others): 97,585 or 0.2%.

* Chinese: 247,403 or 0.4%.

* Other: 230,615 or 0.4%.

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Not unlike the dubious claims made by Republicans here, what is the Tory’s Party appeal for Britain’s black voters?  You’ll find many of the arguments quite familiar

In many respects, Afro-Caribbean and African people are tailor-made for the Tory party.  It was the Tories who introduced the 1948 British Nationality Act (more information here), which gave all members of the Commonwealth the right to British citizenship and kick-started mass immigration into the UK.

Despite an open-door policy, Caribbean immigration was at first a trickle, with annual figures in the low hundreds. The adoptive country of choice for most West Indians was the US. But following the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, which restricted entry into America, UK immigration increased steadily.  In 1962, my parents arrived from British Guiana (now Guyana).  They were classic immigrants: hard-working, self-sufficient, homeowners.  Tailor-made Tories.

The diaspora is still culturally conservative.  Attitudes toward child discipline, abortion and homosexuality are deeply reactionary.  A few years ago, a poll showed 96 per cent of Jamaicans were opposed to legalising homosexuality.  The African diocese of the Anglican Church is now so right-wing that even God feels like a guilty white liberal.  But does social and cultural conservatism equal political conservatism?

Many of the same themes of social conservatism were discussed at length on these pages during the recent controversy generated by the appearance of Donnie McClurkin at a gospel concert in Charleston, South Carolina organized by the Obama Campaign.  Rather than revisit the controversy, you can read the numerous diaries written here on Daily Kos. Suffice it to say, Matthews’s article echoes almost identical arguments made here: African-American voters are socially and culturally conservative; they mistrust and reject the reflexive liberalism of the Democratic Party elites; and their churches instill in them conservative (with a small ‘c’) values that are, on the surface, perhaps more compatible with the Republican Party.  Why then, a Karl Rove would argue, do they they find common ground with the Democratic Party?    

The answer lies perhaps in the experience of minorities in both countries.  

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African-Americans were unwillingly brought to this country as slaves from several African countries beginning over 400 hundred years ago and suffered unimaginable cruelty and degradation.  Deprived of basic political and civil rights for centuries — until eventual recognition that political power is economic power in a democratic system — compensation for “America’s original sin” (white racism) started in this country during the 1865-1877 Reconstruction era when several African-Americans were elected to Congress.  See the complete list of African-Americans who have served in Congress since 1868.  Beginning with social welfare programs in the 1930s and culminating in the passage of landmark legislation in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, full political and civil rights were restored for African-Americans.  

In 1969, there were only 9 members whereas today’s Congressional Black Caucus boasts 43 members or roughly 10% of the US House of Representatives.  Compared to their overall population, the numbers for Congress’ Hispanic members is even lower. Sadly, only three African-Americans have ever been elected to the US Senate since the Reconstruction era — Edward Brooke (R-MA), Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), and Barack Obama (D-IL). Only two have ever become Governors of a state — Doug Wilder (D-VA) and Deval Patrick (D-MA).  The trend is painfully obvious: the higher the political office, the greater the degree of difficulty for African-American politicians.  

Should this lack of representation at the highest political levels be a concern and an impediment for Obama’s quest for the presidency?  I simply don’t know.  One way polls do not reflect what’s really on the voter’s mind: answering questions truthfully on the issue of race.  In past campaigns, anytime race was explicitly a factor in a statewide campaigns, there was a disparity in the expressed support for minority candidates between pre-election polls and actual election results.  This disparity — sometimes known as the ‘Bradley Effect’ — was painfully evident in a number of political races in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  

So, how much progress have we, as a nation, made in terms of supporting minority candidates?  Ezra Klein, writing a month before the 2006 elections while Obama was still considering his candidacy, noted

In light of Barack Obama’s acknowledgement that he’s considering a presidential run, I found this Newsweek article on “the Bradley Effect” rather interesting, though its focus is primarily on the Senate race over the seat being vacated by Bill Frist, in which the Democratic challenger, Harold Ford, Jr., is black.

As black candidates reaching out to largely white constituencies have discovered in the past, when it comes to measuring political popularity there are lies, damned lies-and polls, on which they rest their fate at their peril.

The phenomenon was first widely noted in 1982, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost a squeaker of a race for governor after being widely projected as the winner.  Douglas Wilder also came up against the “Bradley Effect” when he barely won the 1989 contest for governor of Virginia, after leading comfortably in the polls.

Is it naïve to believe that things have changed, or have we seen the turning of this tide?  It’s difficult to measure racism that has gone underground.

Over two decades after Tom Bradley’s unsuccessful race for CA Governor, Harold Ford, Jr.’s 3% loss to Bob Corker in the 2006 TN Senate contest more or less reflected pre-election polling.  In some respects, that would qualify as considerable progress. Even so, we may be in unchartered political territory.  As has been noted on numerous occasions, this is an election of firsts: the first serious female, African-American, and Hispanic presidential candidates on the Democratic side.  Add to it the fact that we have the first top-tier Mormon and Italian-American Catholic candidates in the Republican Party.  While the Democratic Party has nominated three Catholics as its nominee — Al Smith in 1928, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and John Kerry in 2004 — Rudy Giuliani, if nominated, would be the very first Republican Catholic.  

I often wonder whether Barack Obama’s support is overstated.  Other than Ford’s race in 2006, voters have consistently lied before in past campaigns.  To a large degree, enactment of laws can change (or certainly minimize) discriminatory practices. But entrenched societal racism has more to do with attitudes and those can take decades to change.  Victory, though, would not be easy as you can rest assured that Republicans would rely heavily on their disgraceful history of racial hatred — as was detailed in this recent diary.  In this era of (perhaps excessive) political correctness, some would argue that Obama’s historic candidacy transcends race and that the country has matured sufficiently on the sensitive issue of racial politics.  Still, one must wonder about this question: were Obama to emerge as our nominee, why should we expect the Republican Party to play by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules when their past political history suggests otherwise?  To state the obvious, a breakthrough by Obama would clearly be a gigantic first step towards finally achieving a color-blind society.  

Lost in the clamor for structural change in our political system this election cycle — and even as we celebrate the considerable progress that makes these candidacies possible — it would perhaps be useful to keep the above political history in mind while evaluating the realistic chances of the above-mentioned firsts in becoming the 44th President of the United States.  

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Britain’s experience with minorities tells quite a different story.  There, the overwhelming number of minority immigrants to Britain were either economic migrants or political refugees following World War II, a trend that accelerated in the late 1950’s with a large influx of workers from South Asia and the Caribbean countries. Over the decades, though, improving economic conditions have not necessarily resulted in increased political power for minorities.

Following the 2005 British Elections, there are currently 15 or roughly 2% minority members (including two Tories) in the House of Commons.  You can read more about the comparative history of minority representation in Britain vs the United States in this book by Christina Wolbrecht — The Politics Of Democratic Inclusion, pp. 167-168.  Minority voter participation, behavior, and support for each of the three major political parties (including the Liberal Democrats) in the 2005 Elections are detailed at some length in this Ipsos MORI Study.  

This pattern of minority underrepresentation is not only a problem in Britain but most of Europe

In the United States, all of the black members of the House of Representatives are Democrats and virtually all come from majority-black districts.

But in European countries, there are few majority non-white districts.  In many countries, members of parliament are elected from a party list, by which seats are apportioned according to a nationwide vote total.  The result is that minority candidates must appeal for everyone’s vote.

To change that, many minority politicians in Europe say they look for inspiration from the United States, where minorities have a larger presence in national and local elective offices.  There are differences in history and electoral systems — the European systems tend to make it difficult for minority neighborhoods to elect minority representatives — but many minority politicians say the U.S. experience suggests that taking their place in European government will be a long process.

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To go back to my original question: across the pond, are the Tories in a position to best represent minorities?  Substitute the name Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan or, even, a post-Katrina George W. Bush and you can determine the uphill task for not only the Republican Party in the United States but for the Tories in Britain

Lynda Cowell, a former journalist with the black tabloid The Voice, says for her it boils down to history: “I can appreciate that Labour isn’t what it was, and the lack of difference between the parties has caused widespread apathy.  But even if the Tories persuaded me they were genuine, they’d still have to erase their inherently right-wing past. The name Maggie Thatcher alone is enough to ensure that I never vote Tory.”

Ipsos MORI examined the voting behaviour of black and minority ethnic (BME) voters after the 2005 election.  The findings confirm what friends, relatives and colleagues tell me: scarcely more than 2 per cent of Caribbean and African respondents had voted Conservative, compared with 80 per cent support for Labour.  The report also highlighted the fact that, for black people, class played a bigger role in voting preferences than in the overall population.  In other words, so long as the overwhelming majority of black people stay rooted at the bottom of the social ladder, those who choose to vote will vote Labour. No black middle class – no black Tory vote.

The Democratic Party’s championing the cause of minorities — just like Labour’s in Britain — goes back many decades.  Cynical and manipulative appeals notwithstanding, in other words, economic issues trump social issues in Britain — as they do for the vast majority of African-American voters in presidential elections in this country.  


Note: as you ponder your choices in the diary poll, I recall that almost 90% of African-Americans voters supported the Democratic nominee in recent presidential elections.  In your opinion, how will the level of support be different should Barack Obama become the 2008 Democratic nominee?      

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  1. … the New Statesman asked their readers to respond to the below question.  In an email I received a few days ago, the results were

    Is the Tory Party the natural home for black voters?

    27% said Yes.

    73% said No.

    The Tories, not unlike the Republican Party here, has a long ways to go before it can convince minorities that it — and not the other political parties — is looking out for their best interests.

    Thanks and tips and/or recommendation appreciated.

    ps: as a Gore supporter, I haven’t decided as yet who to support in the Washington, DC Primary Elections.  Thankfully, I don’t have to make that choice until mid-February 2008.  In the General Election, I’ll obviously support whosoever emerges as our nominee.  

  2. This is a good read, J&H, and stuffed with provocative details. You’ve emphasized all the key features that make comparisons between countries difficult and projecting a race-based political franchise tenuous. My short list is this: population, class, dispersion. The UK/EU demographics are discouraging to partisan reformation as is the notion anyone would want to import the US gerrymandered-to-control political model.

    The 2006 AA unemployment rate was 12.6%, over all, comparable to that of Native Americans and 2x that of mainstreamers. Race-based representation is ineffectual for all but the top decile.

    On the other hand, I think AA cultural “conservatism” and homogeneity in the Diaspora is distorted by MSM. Focus dysfunctionality or personalities like Cosby, Oprah, 50 cent or Obama relieves analysts of due diligence on economic data, underlying the “middle-class” marker. Jobs. I can’t recall any an bloc-like politiking while London … perhaps Matthews’s point is meant to be a fair projection of his own interests.

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