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The Choice for Non-White Voters at the UK General Election Is Incredibly Poor

Who's a black guy to vote for when politicians seem more concerned to pander to bigots than court the ethnic minority vote?

by Wail Qasim
01 May 2015, 3:00pm

(Photo by Chris Bethell)

This election is the first in which I've been eligible to vote. However, as a young black person, pickings are slim. The last five years have hit the weakest hardest and, depressingly, all too often that means members of black and minority ethnic (BME) have borne the brunt.

Meanwhile, the main parties have attempted to out-racist each other in the hope of a few votes, rather than doing anything to oppose entrenched institutional racism. From where I'm standing, it feels like the votes of a few angry bigots are given more weight than those of Britain's ethnic minorities.

Who, then, does the voter of colour have to represent them in the upcoming election? Let's take a look at some of the key issues.

REPRESENTATION

The House of Commons is about as white as the pages of a UKIP manifesto. In the last parliament we had 27 MPs from BME communities, well shy of the estimated 117 that would be required to be descriptively representative of the UK population. Still, this figure was a record-breaking increase on the previous parliament. Yet that a governing party such as the Liberal Democrats didn't have a single BME member of parliament during their last term seems outrageous, and highlights a big concern around representation. This time around, 9 percent of their selected candidates are black, Asian or come from a minority ethnicity. Labour and the Conservatives have done somewhat better in the past than the Lib Dems, but are themselves still far off from being truly representative.

All three of the major parties have selected a greater number of BME candidates to stand in May. Perhaps aware of their Oxbridge white-boy image, the Conservatives actually lead, with 11 percent of their MP hopefuls coming from a non-white background. That said, David Cameron seems to be getting ahead of himself when he suggests that his will be "the party of the first black or Asian prime minister". Given Labour won a 68 percent share of the BME vote at the last election, Cameron's promise seems to be more about changing that fact than making a commitment to giving the UK its Obama moment.

Labour has always garnered the highest level of support from BME voters, as well as delivering the most actually elected BME MPs – as opposed to just fielding candidates in constituencies that won't be won.

(Photo by Chris Bethell)

However, voters don't just want to be represented by people with the same skin colour as them – they want their interests to be reflected in their candidates, too. For example, it will be interesting to see what happens to Labour MP David Lammy's support in Tottenham, where he was elected after the death of the much loved Bernie Grant MP. During the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, Grant spoke out in defence of his community and against police brutality. On the other hand, after the 2011 riots, Lammy came out much more critical of his own constituents, rather than the police. This detachment from the community could well be reflected in the polls.

As has been widely reported, the Greens, despite their progressive leftist reputation, are fielding the fewest non-white candidates for seats. Even UKIP have more candidates. None of the candidates from either of these parties are standing in constituencies they are actually projected win, though. In fairness, they're not projected to win in many places at all, but the point stands – the Green Party is happy to have a black person in their broadcast, but they're not going to have any black representatives.

EMPLOYMENT

The headline figures say it all when it comes to employment. The Conservatives and Lib Dems claim a massive success, with two million more people in work, but while white youth unemployment has dropped by 2 percent, black youth unemployment has risen by 50 percent since 2010, according to Labour Party figures.

Add to this the trebling of tuition fees and widespread cuts to further and higher education, and any vision of the future for young BME people looks increasingly bleak.

Labour have rightly pointed out that many of these new "jobs" are actually zero-hours contracts. They promise to tackle this with an end to precarious contracts and an increase in the National Minimum Wage, as well as more opportunities for young people to get apprenticeships. But the Labour Party manifesto has only one reference to BME employment, relegated to a brief section on rights and equalities away from the headline economic policies. It doesn't mention the racial youth unemployment disparity, instead focusing on big name institutional jobs, such as police, judiciary and civil service. People have been calling for greater representation in these fields forever, it seems. Perhaps it's time to examine what is barring young black people from jobs and economic equality en masse?

The Conservative manifesto's section on jobs doesn't mention black unemployment at all. Still, it's bursting with promises of full employment – seemingly to be achieved through more autonomy and tax cuts for businesses. Logically, full employment would have to include black people, so, like our white friends, we too can enjoy mandatory workfare schemes and jobs that don't pay enough to live on.

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Unlike the two other main parties, the Liberal Democrats do dedicate space to black people and the economy. They promise to develop ways to increase BME applications for finance to set up small businesses; to monitor and tackle the BME pay gap; to encourage businesses to have at least one place on their board filled by a BME candidate; and to outlaw caste discrimination. All of this is very admirable, and it's nice that the Lib Dems have actually bothered to consider issues of race in their employment policies. Their ideas are necessary steps towards racial economic equality – but they won't get us all the way there. And whether the Lib Dems can stand by these promises long enough for them to take effect remains to be seen.

The Greens say much the same in their own manifesto, and go further with proposals such as introducing anonymised CVs and increased public sector employment of non-white workers. That would make sure any racist – or even subconsciously racist – bosses can't not hire you because you're black. Their promises include increased investment in treatment, tailored support with job searches for people with mental health problems and a commitment to tackling the general stigma associated with this particular kind of disability.

However, most distinct is that the Greens, as well as the Lib Dems, deal with the issue of mental health in relation to work and race. This is a big deal, as people from black and ethnic minority groups are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems.

Mental health issues have an impact on access to society in general, and access to employment in particular. Taking these intersections seriously is crucial for anyone hoping to promote racial equality.

UKIP have a load to say about "immigrants" and "jobs", but unfortunately none of it's to do with helping BME people out.

(Photo by Chris Bethell)

JUSTICE

Black and minority ethnic communities suffer doubly under the criminal justice system. On the one hand they are more likely to find themselves criminalised by it, and because of this are also more likely to fall foul of the state's well advertised inability to hold itself to account when people have been wronged.

Young black people are 26 percent more likely to be stopped and searched and 20 percent more like to be sent to prison than a white defendant. Given that both Labour and the Conservatives stand in opposition to giving prisoners the vote, this means a disproportionate disenfranchisement of black people in our society.

The main parties have one solution they all agree on when it comes to criminal justice and race: more black police officers. Unfortunately, this policy doesn't seem to have made much difference over the 20 years or more that politicians have been calling for it. In any case, police forces are still coming under fire from their own black officers, who have said the Metropolitan Police is still institutionally racist – which doesn't come as a huge surprise. So do the parties have any other solutions?

The Greens and Lib Dems make specific promises to look at stop and search in their manifestos, unlike Labour and the Tories. The Lib Dems go as far as to suggest that officers should wear body cameras when the blanket section 60 stop and search power is used. Some Labour parliamentary candidates – most notably Diane Abbott – have also promised a sober review of stop and search, separately of the wider party.

But other than this (now quite hackneyed) debate around stop and search, the party manifestos are surprisingly bare when it comes to crime and BME communities. Race and criminal justice are hardly mentioned in connection with one another. In a country where a quarter of the prison population is from a BME background, you'd think there would be more of a discussion about this during the election.

Of course, superficially, the Conservatives are for tougher prison sentencing, Labour for expanded community sentencing and the Greens for restorative justice, but who is looking at why BME communities are so heavily and disproportionately criminalised in the first place? Meanwhile, UKIP think they have the answer, which is – SPOILER ALERT – to point out that lots of crimes are the fault of all those bloody immigrants.

The greatest oversight of all seems to be that after decades of injustice and hard fought battles for recognition, not one party mentions the 509 BME deaths after contact with the police since 1990.

Like with many of these issues, the lack of mention of BME communities' rough treatment at the hands of the justice system seems to be linked to our lack of representation in politics.

So, what have we learned? Well, in asking which party the voter of colour can choose in next week's election, it becomes clear that the choice is a difficult one. I'm not scratching my head because there's so much great choice on offer. In fact, the opposite is true – it's a hard choice because all of the parties are shamefully weak when it comes to racial politics.

@WailQ

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