Ethnic diversity and political participation in Britain

The Representation of the People Act 1918 laid the ground to eventually extend the franchise to ‘British subjects’, which at the time included the people of Ireland - then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland — and all other parts of the British Empire. During de-colonisation, until they acquired one or other of the national citizenships of newly post-colonial countries, formerly British subjects retained their British status, which conferred a right to the franchise (see Lester, 2008). This was enshrined in the 1948 British Nationality Act which also granted freedom of movement to all formerly or presently dependent, and now Commonwealth, territories (regardless of whether their passports were issued by independent or colonial states) by creating the status of ‘Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ (CUKC). Although most of Ireland and the majority of the colonies became independent nations, their citizens retained the right to vote in British elections if they lived in the UK. The 1948 Nationality Act thus gave those living in Commonwealth countries the right to British citizenship and therefore the right of entry and settlement on the British mainland.

Commonwealth migrants came to Britain in response to labour shortages during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by a second wave of immigration during the 1970s. Life was hard for many of these migrants as they were often obliged to work unsociable hours for rates of pay and conditions that were often less favourable than those of their native British counterparts. Even if they were unionised and had been in their jobs longer than others, they were often the first to be dismissed in times of redundancies (Wrench, 2000). The first forms of political participation were various workers’ campaigns, which included organisations such as the Indian Workers Association (Josephides, 1991). The necessity of forming such ‘ethnic’ trade unions was due to the lack of support from the British trade union movement. Indeed, as Satnam Virdee points out, trade unions consistently ‘failed to counter the racist views and actions of some of their members’ (Virdee, 2000: 133). Labour institutions, in other words, were too often acting in the interests of the white working class. From the 1960s onwards, migrant workers were involved in a number of‘immigrant strikes’ such as the pioneering industrial action of 1965 at the Red Scar Mill in Preston. This was followed by a series of other emblematic strikes such as those at the Coneygre Foundry in Tipton (1967-8), Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Loughborough (1972—3), Imperial Typewriters in Leicester (1974) and the Grunwick film processing in Willesden (1976-7). The Grunwick dispute, involving many South Asian women (dubbed ‘strikers in saris’) ended in defeat for the strikers but was seen as a crucial moment in terms of defending the rights of migrant workers (Peace, 2015b).

During the 1970s, new forms of activism also developed outside the workplace in response to increasingly restrictive government immigration policy and racism in British society. A number of racist murders gave impetus to an important anti-racist movement that involved many second-generation Afro-Caribbean and South Asian youths. Involvement in struggles inside and outside the workplace was an important introduction to left-wing activism and would shape the political engagements of many ethnic minorities in later years. Garbaye (2005: 119) has noted, for example, how after involvement in industrial disputes, ‘many Pakistanis moved to activities as shop stewards in a union at their workplace, which in turn shaped their approach to politics, with activism in the Labour Party an almost natural step for many’. As Lent (2001) has observed, a number of activists who were involved in social movements in the 1970s decided to join the Labour party in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was facilitated by decline in support for these movements, disputes between factions, the rise of the Labour Left and the pragmatic desire to join a party that had the power (at least in local government) to actually implement progressive policies. The Labour Party played an important role in the political socialisation of ethnic minorities in Britain. From the 1970s onwards, the party was the natural ally of ethnic minority concerns, particularly campaigns against racism. This does not merely refer to support from the party in terms of legislation seen as favourable to minorities, but also included grass roots solidarity on local or indeed national campaigns from Labour supporters. The Labour Party built on its early success in attracting a minority vote by developing a distinct ethnic electorate and promoting ethnic minority elites. The relation between Labour and this electorate became so entrenched that, come election time, these voters were addressed ‘on the premise that they were primarily concerned with issues specific to their non-white character’ (Garbaye, 2005: 53).

Labour’s dominance in attracting ethnic minority voters prompted a reaction from the Conservative Party, and during the 1983 general election it made its first attempt to capture the ethnic vote with a poster campaign featuring images of Black and South Asian men with the claim that ‘Labour Says He’s Black - Tories Say He’s British’. A national exit poll after this election showed that the majority of ethnic minorities had still supported Labour (57 per cent), with just 24 per cent voting Conservative (Anwar, 1986). In fact, Labour remained the dominant party in relation to BME voters, leading Anthony Messina (1989: 151) to conclude that ‘Labour is the party of, if not unambiguously for, non-whites’. It has been argued that

the legacy of these efforts to advance black interests has been the evolution of community norms and sentiments in favour of the Labour Party ... community norms (and community activists) may have channelled black feelings of exclusion and disaffection away from mobilization in the streets and into electoral politics.

(Heath et al., 2013: 205)

The result of this has been an enduring loyalty to the Labour Party among ethnic minority voters.

Ethnic minorities were also influential inside the Labour Party, exemplified by the ten-year ‘Black Sections’ movement that commenced in 1983 and was the most important campaign for representation and self-organisation within the party. As Diane Abbott herself said:

We created a climate where ... all the constituencies that in 1987 elected Black MPs had Black sections because it was the Black sections inside the local parties that made common causes with Black groups outside and said we want a Black MP in Hackney, Tottenham, and Brixton and so on.

(interview with Meer, 2009)

There is no doubt that this campaign led to the election of the BME Labour MPs in 1987 but it was also a political feat to pull off

the construction of a black British political identity that does not ignore the lived reality of cultural difference but does not succumb to it either ... It has never been possible to deliver the black vote in Britain in the sense that it has in the USA. Yet Black Sections have implied that it is possible, or at least the black vote might be lost if the Labour Party did not take their demands more seriously.

(Jeffers, 1991: 54)

The first-past-the-post electoral system made it essential for Labour to take such demands seriously, since ethnic minorities were often concentrated in specific (urban) constituencies and could thus play a vital role in winning individual seats. The same factors were important at the local level, where councillors are elected to specific wards, which may have a significant proportion of voters from a particular ethnic background. This situation made certain communities ‘king-makers’ in local elections in Britain. The 1991 Census, the first to include a question on ethnicity, showed that 100 local wards had an ethnic minority population of over 43 per cent. Unsurprisingly, during the 1990s there was a huge increase in the number of ethnic minorities elected to local government.

In 1996 there were an estimated 600 councillors from a BME background in Britain (3 per cent of the total), but in those cities with a large BME population the representation on local councils was proportionate to their percentage in the local population (Garbaye, 2005: 7). As Anwar (2001: 534) noted, it is

the location, the concentration and the number of ethnic minorities in certain areas [that] make them statistically important in the political process. However, it must be stressed that it is not only the number of ethnic minorities in certain areas which makes them electorally important but also whether they actively take part in the process through registration on the electoral register, and, if they are on the register, whether they come out to vote and what their voting patterns are.

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