Ethnic minority candidates still suffering at the polls

Perhaps because the general election saw an increase in the overall number of MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds, little attention has been paid to patterns in the constituency results that suggest white voters are still somewhat reluctant to support minority candidates.

Our guest writer is Stephen Fisher, the Lecturer in Political Sociology at the University of Oxford.  Together with John Curtice and Robert Ford, he wrote Appendix 2 of The British General Election of 2010 to be published today by Palgrave.

Perhaps because the general election saw an increase in the overall number of MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds, little attention has been paid to patterns in the constituency results that suggest white voters are still somewhat reluctant to support minority candidates.

A detailed analysis of the election results, published this week in The British General Election of 2010, shows that in constituencies with a relatively small ethnic minority population (that is, three quarters of all seats), Labour and Conservative ethnic minority candidates did noticeably less well than their white counterparts.

The Labour share of the vote fell by an average of 10.9 percentage points where their candidate was an ethnic minority, but by 7.1 points elsewhere.  Similarly ethnic minority Conservative candidates saw their vote rise by just 2.3 points, less than the 3.9 average for their white counterparts.

But in areas where more than 10% of the population was from an ethnic minority, overall candidate ethnicity differences were much smaller and any disadvantage can be accounted for by other factors.

These patterns mirror similar findings from the 2005 election.  So not only did ethnic minority candidates who replaced white candidates do less well than those in seats fought by whites in both 2005 and 2010, but those white candidates (from either the Conservatives or Labour) who replaced minority candidates did about 1.4 points better, apparently benefiting from the unwinding of an ethnic penalty suffered by their predecessor.

The performance of Liberal Democrat candidates is more complicated, but it seems that ethnic minority candidates who fought predominantly white constituencies were not under the same disadvantage as their Conservative or Labour counterparts.

The average candidate ethnicity effect seems to be too small to affect the outcome except in the more marginal constituencies.  After controlling for other factors influencing the vote, it is in the order of two percentage points.  So fear of a white backlash should not prohibit parties from selecting ethnic minority candidates for winnable seats.

Indeed, it was not by fielding substantially more ethnic minority candidates overall that the Conservatives increased their number of ethnic minority MPs from two to eleven, but by raising the number of candidates among seats they were likely to win anyway.  The strategy appears to have cost the Tories some votes but no seats.

It is the rise in the number of Conservative ethnic minority MPs that accounts for most of the overall increase in minority representation, from fifteen after the 2005 election to 26 this year.  This is still just four percent of the Commons from a group that constitutes over ten percent of the population.

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