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The Black Vote in Birmingham in 2015

The Black Vote in Birmingham in 2015

🕔15.Aug 2013

Suppose the headline of this blog were slightly different: “UNEMPLOYED VOTE CAN DECIDE 2015 GENERAL ELECTION IN 6 BIRMINGHAM CONSTITUENCIES”. I’d guess you’d be pretty sceptical.

You might accept that the city’s regrettably high numbers of unemployed might make it statistically feasible, but, come June 2015, would they all have even got themselves on to the electoral register? And, if so, would they all bother to turn out, and would enough of them vote the same way for this ‘unemployed vote’ to be decisive?

Your scepticism would be well-founded. Yet a precisely similar claim for the ‘Black vote’ was made this week by the cross-party racial justice group, Operation Black Vote (OBV), in its report, Power of the Black Vote in 2015;

“Our ground-breaking research clearly shows that the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) vote could easily decide over 160 seats. In 168 marginal seats the BME electorate is larger than the majority by which the seat was won.”

Six of the 168 are in Birmingham, and others in the metropolitan West Midlands include Coventry South and North West, Dudley North and South, Walsall North and South, Wolverhampton South West and North East, and Solihull.

I must admit, when I first read it, I was reminded of John Major’s narrow and unexpected 21-seat win in the 1992 election, and defeated leader Neil Kinnock’s repeated lament that, if only 2,478 voters in Labour’s 11 most narrowly lost constituencies had voted Labour instead of Conservative, Major would never have had his majority. Statistically sound, but electorally senseless.

To be fair, though, the OBV study is a good and useful one, some of its methodology is novel, and its updated data for all 573 English and Welsh constituencies will be invaluable for all political parties, commentators, and, certainly not least, BME organisations themselves.
However, the assertion that those 168 ‘marginal’ seats ‘could easily decide’ the election seems seriously exaggerated, to the extent that it risks undermining the genuinely important issues that OBV seeks to highlight.

It’s hardly ‘ground-breaking’ but undeniably useful to update constituency populations with the 2011 Census figures, which showed the BME population nationally to have increased from 8% in 2001 to 14%. Proportionally, Birmingham’s has risen slightly less, but from a far higher base – from just under 30% to 42%. Constituency percentages range from Northfield (14), Selly Oak (22) and Edgbaston (31) to the now four constituencies with majority BME populations: Perry Barr (60), Hodge Hill (64), Hall Green (65) and Ladywood (73).

All major BME groups have higher than average proportions of young people, so this is where the ‘ground-breaking research’ or fancy arithmetic is needed, to translate populations into electorates. The projected 2015 population figures are accordingly adjusted to account for roughly 27% of BMEs being under 18, compared to only 16% of the white population.

It’s not perfect, but, as a quick and dirty way of producing indicative statistics for every constituency, it seems acceptable. What I object to is the study’s chosen terminology. It repeatedly refers to these adjusted totals as ‘BME electorates’ – which they are not. Electorates are not age groups; they are those who in our system are eligible and validly registered to vote in the election in question. There’s a substantial slippage from adult populations to electorates.

Some of these ‘BME electorates’ will not be, or not know if they are, eligible to vote in a parliamentary election, and a great many more will not actually be registered. We know from a Runnymede Trust survey that in 2010, whereas 90 per cent of white respondents were registered to vote at the sampled address, the figure for all BME groups was well below 80 per cent and for some groups, and particularly first-time voters, much lower still. At most, therefore, they should be seen as ‘potential electorates’.

Once registered, the turnout of BME electors in recent elections has been lower, but mostly not a great deal lower, than among white voters – though there must be doubts about this pattern continuing, if second and third generations become increasingly alienated from a political system that they feel treats them unfairly.

The other part of the OBV claim involves applying this potential electorate figure to ‘marginal constituencies’, defined simply as those where the MP was elected in 2010 with a majority of less than 6,000. This explains how six of Birmingham’s nine constituencies are judged marginal or, in Edgbaston’s case, ultra-marginal.

In contrast to the calculation of potential electorates, no adjustments are made – for example, for the improbability of a constituency being equally marginal in 2015 as in the very different political climate of 2010, when Labour’s vote share was its second worst ever, the Lib Dems were riding relatively high, and UKIP was nowhere.

In summary, then, the OBV’s claim is that there are 168 English and Welsh constituencies in which the number of potential BME electors exceeds the sitting MP’s 2010 majority, will therefore have a ‘high impact’ and ‘could easily’ be decisive.

In this instance, the ‘Birmingham Six’ are, in the OBV’s order of potential BME impact: Edgbaston (2010 Lab majority 1,274; potential BME electorate 22,100); Hall Green (Lab 3,799; 54,700); Yardley (LD 3,002; 26,800); Erdington (Lab 3,277; 19,300); Selly Oak (Lab 3,482; 17,100); Northfield (Lab 2,782; 10,500).

The remaining three constituencies all of course have very large potential BME electorates – Hodge Hill (57,300), Ladywood (67,400) and Perry Barr (47,300) – but, with their Labour MPs sitting on majorities of over 10,000, they don’t squeeze into even the OBV’s generous definition of marginals.

Overlooking the numbers and the hype, there are several important messages in this report. First, there’s the statistical confirmation of the growing importance of the BME vote – and in places well beyond the inner cities and conurbations. For example, Solihull, North Warwickshire, Warwick and Leamington, Nuneaton, Rugby, Worcester and Gloucester all make it into OBV’s 168.

Second, there’s the challenge to all parties. The Runnymede Trust study found that Labour in 2010 took 68% of BME votes, against the Conservatives’ 16% and the Lib Dems’ 14% – dire for the Conservatives, but even that apparently strong Labour vote was down compared with previous elections, particularly among Indians and Pakistanis.

Thirdly, there’s the message for BME voters themselves. OBV is not, I think, suggesting there is a homogeneous ‘Black vote’ or that voters even within the same BME community all share common political interests. It is, however, signalling the potential power of numbers, and surely sounding a warning: no matter how many adult residents and potential electors there are in a constituency, they can’t have an impact on any election, let alone decide its outcome, if they aren’t registered.

Finally, if there isn’t a homogeneous Black vote, there certainly isn’t a homogeneous unemployed vote – yet all those six Birmingham constituencies also currently have unemployment totals higher than their MPs’ 2010 majorities. I wonder what it would take for those statistics to be seen as potentially electorally decisive.

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