How the US elections revealed the invisible man to the UK

As some may know I’ve been an avid Manchester City fan all my life. One of their favourite songs goes like this: “We are not, we’re not really here… Just like fans of the invisible man, we’re not really here!” It’s irony is based on the fact that the thousands of City fans are anything but invisible, and make one hell of a racket into the bargain.

The same could be said for Britain’s Black, Asian and other minority ethnic voters. We’re here, we’re highly visible and audible but, to the mainstream political commentators, it is as if we aren’t really here.

So I was somewhat surprised when the BBC’s US election night coverage applied analysis to the African-American and Hispanic votes in comparison to white Americans. Of course it’s one of the biggest factors in US politics showing the sharpest political divides, but I fully expected the British media to stick to their invisible man philosophy.

There were one or two grumbles on Twitter but other than that in some ways a Rubicon had been crossed. ‘Race’ and the voting patterns of different communities matter, particularly in America with 93 percent of African-Americans and 71 percent of Latinos voting for President Barack Obama. Quite simply it was not possible for Mitt Romney to win on white votes alone.

Obama took 39 percent of the white vote against 59 percent for Romney. Even though ‘race’ has been a factor throughout his presidency, as a mainstream candidate Obama was always going to appeal to many white voters, especially on the east and west coasts and in the cities.

The reality for the Republicans is that they ran out of white voters. America is changing with higher birthrates amongst descendants of immigrants of colour and as a consequence no presidential hopeful will probably ever make it to the White House again without a sizeable slice of their vote.

Many commentators have speculated that the pendulum has not so much swung over to the Left but is now permanently stuck there. There may be something to this theory insomuch as any candidate running on an ultra-Right policy platform, as Romney did, may be doomed to failure in an increasingly diverse America.

But it would be wrong to assume that just being progressive on social policy is enough to shift African-Americans and Hispanics onside. They don’t all share one common position on the Left-Right spectrum for starters. There are plenty of middle class Black and Latino American families whose politics differs from people in poorer neighbourhoods. It is really more about a party and a candidate understanding them and designing equalities policies specifically to tackle the barriers they face.

Obama didn’t set out many policies in this area and those communities have, to an extent, granted him a pass on the understanding that, as a man of colour himself, he has their best interests at heart and will come good for them in his the second term. A white Democrat may well have had to work harder to get their vote.

Black and Latino America voted against the Republicans as much as for Obama. After years of exposure to Right-wing Tea Party racists and assorted fruitcakes they feared a Republican presidency more than a Romney one. As moderate as Romney tried to sound during the campaign they weren’t having it. 

Herein is a lesson for the British political scene. Pitching to Black voters in the midst of a general election may look good but it is no substitute for reaching out to them throughout the electoral term. That is when impressions are formed, and parties are judged on their record and rhetoric. It’s no use spending five years conspiring to raise the temperature on immigration, for example, and then send entirely different signals to diverse communities during an election campaign.

British party’s record in talking about diversity and, more importantly, addressing what they are going to do about racial inequality in areas like employment, education, health, policing and criminal justice is what’s important, not having a photo opp with Mo Farah. 

Lib Dem analyst-in-chief Mark Pack has blogged about ‘Five lessons from the US elections‘ for us politicos here in the UK. Notably one of the five was giving regard to Black voters. He writes:

Ethnic minorities are big, not small. The electorate is changing and if there is a growing group of people who instinctively do not view your party as being a party for them you can get away with it now and again, but it becomes progressively harder to do so as that group grows in number. Romney did well among white Americans, and look where that got him.

While the dynamics of ‘race’ are very different between the UK and the US, there are also similarities to consider. The Lib Dems gained exactly the same proportion of African and Caribbean votes at the last general election (six percent) as Romney captured in African-Americans votes.

Today Black voters remain as wedded to Labour as they are to the Democrats. There are historical reasons for this but no excuse for the Lib Dems, Conservatives and the Republicans not to do better. Britain too is rapidly becoming a more diverse nation. Our identities and histories are different but, like the US, it still matters here.

And like the Republicans, British parties have a choice. Do they continue to play a colour-blind game, blind to the injustice of racism and racial inequality that scar our society, blind to the disproportionate effects policies are having on BAME communities, or do they make the invisible man visible with explicit attention given to issues affecting those communities?

Romney’s failure is in many ways a precursor to the future of Britain in the years and decades to come. Parties that can convince BAME communities they have their best interests at heart and field candidates who connect with them will increasingly get elected, while those that don’t won’t. 

As the meerkat says: simples!

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