Do we need to reinforce our open-minded, tolerant and liberal credentials?

Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities represent a growing proportion of the UK. In 2010 they made up a total of 14% of the population and 8% of the voters. Yet at the last general election the majority (52%) of BAME voters cast their ballot for Labour not the Lib Dems. In fact over two thirds – 67% – of the black community voted Labour, with 38% of the Asian community voting Conservative.

Lib Dem opposition to the Iraq war in 2003 won the party a legion of new supporters, many from BAME communities, who felt let down by Labour’s march to war. The result was that in the 2005 general election the Lib Dems polled 16% from ethnic minority voters, with support particularly high amongst Pakistani voters amongst whom they polled 25%. Fast forward a decade and Lib Dem support among BAME voters in 2015 had collapsed to just 4%. It’s clear that the Party urgently needs to address this, and find neat innovative ways to appeal to BAME voters whose trust has been lost perhaps because of lack of engagement and lack of attention at the top of the party.

The Conservatives can, in part, credit their strong 2015 general election performance to the support of a million BAME voters. Perhaps part of the explanation is the growing number of Conservative MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds (they currently have 17). Contrast that with the Lib Dems, not a single one of the party’s MPs is from a BAME community. The party must find ways to select more high-quality BAME general election candidates ahead of 2020. It is also simply not good enough having eight peers from a BAME background. Lib Dem HQ must do everything within its powers to encourage BAME candidates to stand, providing opportunities and skills to equip candidates with everything they need to contest winnable seats. What’s more we need a leadership team at LDHQ and around Tim who are young, diversified and vibrant and who can engage communities across the country effectively. Even if our MPs don’t look and sound like an ethnically diverse United Kingdom, the rest of the party has to.

Another challenge is about where the party targets its election resources. The Lib Dem’s historical support base (areas like the South West and the Scottish Highlands) has lower than average populations of BAME voters. The party must more effectively focus money and resources taking on Labour in its heartlands, particularly in the inner cities where Lib Dems have traditionally struggled to win and hold on to parliamentary seats. The first and second generations of many immigrant communities have voted Labour all their lives: it will require ongoing, continuous engagement and cultivation to persuade them to shift to their next alternative allegiance. What’s more, when we do engage them we should be proud of defending our record in Government: reminding people what we achieved and, crucially, what cuts the Lib Dems stopped from taking place.

Of course, any discussion of how Lib Dems can win back BAME support must also consider policy. We’re still at the start of a long period during which Lib Dem policy groups will begin discussing and debating those issues that the party will go into the next election fighting on. It would be easy to say ‘let’s focus on BAME voters’ but the party must be attentive to the similarities and distinct interests of different communities.

But one thing which surely unites many BAME communities as well as liberals is the way that Western governments should respond to the challenges of extremism, public sector cuts and the emerging humanitarian refugee crisis. You only have to look at the US and the inflammatory comments being made by Republicans in the party’s nomination race for a presidential candidate to see how vulnerable Muslim communities are to the actions of extremists, often thousands of miles away. Here in the UK the Lib Dems have a moral duty to stand up for Muslim communities and to ensure their support and solidarity with the Muslim community is unwavering.

We have a proud tradition welcoming and encouraging people to our shores from around the world – embracing the value and importance of economic migration and the benefits it brings. We must also continue to stand up and offer support to those people fleeing persecution from around the world. As Lib Dems develop policies for 2020 these must be front and centre – finding a balance between compassion, common sense and ensuring we bring supporters from across all communities with us.

Lib Dems need to take a look at ourselves and decide what sort of a party we want to be, and if we want to truly represent the UK’s minority communities. Assuming the answer is yes, and then there is much work to be done. That work must start now.

* The author is a banking professional and a Kingston Lib Dem Member

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10 Comments

  • Against the Iraq war but voted for bombing of Libya and Syria. That would cause a loss in support.

  • Zack Polanski 4th Feb '16 - 3:25pm

    Well said, Shoaib.

    For too long, diversity has been seen by political parties (& companies) as a box ticking exercise or an obstacle to be overcome.

    But rarely is the opportunity and power of liberalism so obvious as the potential future of our political party (& country.) We need to be creating and pushing forward policy which looks and sounds like the people across the breadth of the UK (& indeed Europe) which moves towards genuinely progressive opportunities for everybody.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 4th Feb '16 - 5:24pm

    I agree wholeheartedly – we need more high-quality BAME candidates in key target seats. However the comparison with the Tories seems weak. 17 BAME MPs out of 330 is around 1 in 20. While all our MPs are white, we only have 8.

  • @Thomas
    The trouble is, the Lib Dems have had only one non-white MP ever, and he (can’t remember his name – doubt many of you can either) only lasted a few months.

    Before that you have to go back to the 19th century to find a Liberal MP from India. This is a poor record for a party that has been racially diverse for a long time now.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 4th Feb '16 - 8:25pm

    @Stuart
    Yes, I completely agree that diversity is a massive issue for our party. However, the Tories also have a poor record on diversity, so I think the comparison with the Tories makes our record look less favourable than it is in reality, by the appalling standards of Westminster.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Feb '16 - 4:13pm

    I agree and disagree with this article. I agree strongly on the part about reaching out to Labour’s inner-city vote. I commented on the importance of this very recently.

    However is there any evidence that BAME voters are more “open minded, tolerant and liberal” than anyone else? The Green Party talk a good game in this area and they fielded fewer BAME candidates than UKIP.

    I’m also not designing my foreign policy according to the demographic in society that is most against the specific military intervention. This will change depending on where the wars and threats are, but ultimately we can’t go down a knee-jerk anti war route in order to hopefully win some more BAME votes. In the Middle East, for instance, wars are so sectarian that the BAME view, or even the Muslim view, can’t just be bundled into one group.

  • Simon Banks 6th Feb '16 - 3:25pm

    I seem to recall that if you look at whether people would consider voting Liberal Democrat, we do well among younger Indian voters, especially well-educated women. Yet the surge of new members after the general election was disproportionately white. We do need to ask ourselves why very few BAME voters sympathetic to us are making that final leap.

    As for a new targeting strategy, I do not agree that disproportionate effort should be put into inner-city aread with big BAME populations, but I do agree that the increasingly narrow targeting strategy the party has adopted over the last twelve years or so has seriously damaged our long-term prospects. Where there is a small, keen group with potential to grow and develop our strength in an inner-city area, they need support, as does a struggling local party in danger of disappearing but with potential to strengthen. Regional parties should be leading on this, but so far, I just see the same narrow short-term targeting.

  • We do need to do more to understand why we connect so poorly with voters from BaME communities, and why when people do join from those communities we seem to support them so poorly. For me the first steps are to actually ask people, in both instances, why; why don’t we appeal to BaME communities when seeking votes, and why do we seem to fail so poorly to choose and select BaME candidates.

    As a newly elected Vice-Chair for London Region, I and my fellow co-Vice Chair, Teena Lashmore, are keen to find answers to these questions, and to come up with practical, inclusive, and yes, Liberal, solutions. Any ideas, advice, suggestions or critiques will be warmly welcomed.

  • Peter Watson 17th Feb '16 - 6:24pm

    It is interesting to compare and contrast this approach to improving ethnic diversity within the Lib Dems with that being hotly discussed elsewhere on the site about improving gender diversity.

  • Peter Watson 17th Feb '16 - 6:36pm

    @Thomas Shakespeare “the Tories also have a poor record on diversity”
    Much as I hate myself for leaping to the defence of the Conservatives, it should be noted that they had a woman party leader (and Prime Minister), an asian woman cabinet member and party chair (who was also a northerner!), and north of the border the Scottish Conservatives have an openly gay woman leader.
    It often appears that despite all of the Lib Dem talk about liberty and equality, Labour, the Conservatives, the SNP, the Greens, etc. can all produce people to speak on behalf of their party from a much more diverse range of backgrounds.

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