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“Talking about ‘white privilege’ tends to polarise views”: Understanding ethnicity and politics

Brighton 1987 Labour leader Neil Kinnock (c) with newly elected Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

9 min read

The Gaza conflict is the latest issue to increase the noise around politics and ethnicity, but Sunder Katwala calls for a more sophisticated understanding of how they interact

Britain is an increasingly diverse democracy in which ethnic minority citizens have more voice and presence in public life than ever before. And yet the politics of race has rarely felt so complex or contested. 

Consider how many identity issues have ricocheted through the politics of this Parliament. The Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests and the polarisation over the Sewell report which responded to them. Clashes over statues and how we teach about the history of empire. Brexit ending free movement – and record immigration from outside Europe. Conflict in the Middle East has seen incidents of antisemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice spike and clashes over how to police the boundaries between politics, protest and prejudice.

Ministers have simultaneously declared Britain to be the most successful multi-ethnic democracy in the world and yet claimed it is in denial about the existential threat posed by mass immigration and the “toxic failures of multiculturalism”. The politics of a general election year may raise the temperature further. The Conservatives mock Labour leader Keir Starmer for “taking the knee”, while the left accuse the right of “dog whistling” as the parties declare that their opponents are the real culture warriors. It can sometimes seem like the political choice is between noisy, unconstructive polarisation and ducking out of the substantive issues of how we handle identity, race and integration in our changing society. So how could we move forward?

Talking about ‘white privilege’ tends to polarise views

For a start I would set a simple “one nation” test for every party that wants to govern 2020s Britain: that no citizen should feel a tension between their ethnic and faith background and contributing to public life through the party of their choice.

Labour failed that test with left-leaning British Jews to the extent that it was found in breach of its legal duties. Rebuilding that trust remains a work in progress. The small number of British Muslim Conservative parliamentarians see the divided party reaction to the suspension of Lee Anderson as underlining that the party has not yet put effective foundations in place for education and action to recognise anti-Muslim prejudice and to act on it. Challenging opponents is part of electoral politics – but parties make a substantive contribution to anti-prejudice norms only when they uphold within their own tribes the standards that they demand of others.

There are grounds for confidence in the dramatic shifts towards a more inclusive politics in this generation. Rishi Sunak, at 43, is a fairly young Prime Minister yet he was born into a 1980s Britain where every postwar MP had been white – and graduated from university in 2001 in a country which had never yet had a single Black or Asian Cabinet minister. (Paul Boateng broke that barrier in May 2002. It took another dozen years before Sajid Javid became the first Asian secretary of state.)

Ethnic minority political leadership became possible once party leaders and selectorates came to believe – as they often did not before 2010 – that Black and Asian politicians could represent everybody rather than being seen more narrowly as primarily spokespeople for minority communities. Humza Yousaf becoming First Minister in Scotland and Vaughan Gething’s bid for the leadership of Welsh Labour have proved that this now extends to nations with considerably lower levels of ethnic diversity than England. British Future’s analysis of parliamentary selections shows that the 2024 general election will see a new record number of ethnic minority MPs, though still not yet quite matching the growing share of the electorate.

Yet equal opportunities to reach the top do not prevent ethnic minority politicians having an unequal experience of public life. Women and ethnic minorities receive a dramatically disproportionate share of online hatred – and social media companies have persistently failed to uphold the standards we expect everywhere else in the public square. 

It is partly because ethnic diversity has become a cross-party norm in British politics, to an extent largely unmatched in other major democracies, that the rise in minority representation across parties and factions has led to a more sharply contested politics of race than when Labour had a near monopoly on minority representation in the last century.

We also need a much more sophisticated way of discussing how race interacts with politics – and one that is informed by facts, not stereotypes. Ethnic minority voters make up a larger share of the electorate than ever before, from one in 20 voters in the 1990s to one in six eligible voters in 2024. But there are several unknowns about minority voting in this general election. How far does Rishi Sunak being the first British Asian prime minister help the Conservatives make progress with British Indian and Hindu voters? How far will pressure on Keir Starmer over Gaza disrupt Labour’s traditional strength with British Muslim voters?

Yet sweeping anecdotal discussion of ethnic minority bloc votes has never been more out of date. Indeed, something that has gone under the radar is that current polling suggests that the 2024 general election will see the voting gap by party between those of the ethnic majority and those of the minority narrow more than ever before. Further this is being driven more by dramatic shifts in the majority group’s voting preferences than more gradual shifts across minority groups.

David Cameron prioritised narrowing the ethnic voting gap. He realised that the fact that Conservatives were only half as likely to win an ethnic minority as a white voter was an existential challenge. His impressive progress in accelerating parliamentary diversity brought only incremental electoral gains, however. Cameron did lay the ghosts of Powell and Tebbit’s cricket test – but the Windrush scandal and how some on the right talk about multiculturalism and Muslims created new baggage, so that the Conservatives’ popularity with Black Caribbean and British Muslim voters has, at best, flattened.

Being a graduate is associated with voting for the left among white British voters. Yet the opposite is true among ethnic minorities, as James Kanagasooriam has shown. Graduates from ethnic minorities are more inclined to vote Conservative than non-graduates. The post-Brexit polarisation put off the aspirational graduate minority vote that Cameron was starting to attract. Ethnic minority voters – most likely to be pro-immigration and pro-faith – often do not fit into the imagined categories of cultural polarisation.

Labour’s national poll lead has seen it bridge some of the divides of post-Brexit politics but British Muslims are the one demographic group where the party risks going backwards, as it did in 2005 after the Iraq war. Recent polls show Labour with a reduced vote share, but still at 45 per cent to 60 per cent of Muslim voters. Gaza has certainly mobilised protest and pressure yet media reporting rarely reflects that it currently ranks fourth as a general election priority, behind the NHS, cost of living and jobs among Muslim voters.

It is important to remember that communities do not vote, citizens do. So voters from every colour and creed should expect every party to make a pitch for their votes. It would be a good indicator of long-term political inclusion if it gets harder in this generation to guess somebody’s politics from the colour of their skin.

Yes, how to talk about race is increasingly contested but British Future’s research shows a much broader consensus on priorities for practical action.

Language does matter. Talking about “white privilege” tends to polarise views – by generation and politics, as well as between ethnic groups. The word “privilege” tends to trigger arguments about whether to prioritise social class or ethnic barriers to fair chances. Yet there is a much broader interethnic consensus on the idea that Black and Asian people still face discrimination in their everyday lives in Britain today.

That those with an ethnic minority background need to apply for more jobs to get an interview, compared to others with an identical CV, is received as a compelling example of unfairness in Britain today, for example. Despite what you might imagine from some commentators there is also a strikingly broad consensus on the value for teaching the history of empire that explains the making of modern Britain.

Stronger action on online hatred is another theme of broad consensus as long as we get the boundaries right. There must be a “levelling up” of approaches to racism and prejudice so that the aspiration to a “zero tolerance” approach is rooted in active strategies. The strength of government commitments to challenging antisemitism offers a model to emulate across other strands of hatred too.

Political and policy engagement with race in Britain has mostly been crisis driven. We now need a sustained engagement where we invest outside of flashpoint moments in the relationships and resilience we need when the pressure is on. The Windrush 100 network brings together civic and community voices seeking to deepen the public conversation about the past, present and future of a multi-ethnic Britain. The 75th anniversary last year of the Windrush docking at Tilbury marks three-quarters of a century of this new chapter in our modern history. So what do we want Britain to look like when we mark the centenary of a modern multiethnic Britain? The network proposes that setting 2048, the Windrush centenary, as a “net-zero” year by when we could eliminate racial discrimination and disadvantage in Britain in this generation. 

Adopting that vision offers a route for how a “mission-led” government could integrate thinking about fairness on race into its vision for long-term change, putting the building blocks in place as to how to drive and audit progress in this next parliament.
How far race unites or divides depends on how the public conversation is led. The election will see the parties clash over how to talk about race. Placing more focus on action as well as talk could help to build more confidence in how we could find common ground on what fairness means in an increasingly diverse Britain. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and author of How to be a patriot

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