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Britain's cosmopolitan future

A cosmopolitan cul-de-sac

Maria Sobolewska - 31 July 2015

A race to win the support of cosmopolitan voters risks provoking lower turnouts and further voter disengagement

Jeremy Cliffe’s vision of the bright cosmopolitan future may come up against two crucial stumbling blocks: increased salience of ethnicity and the dangers of political apathy.

Cliffe’s political forecast for the new cosmopolitan Britain seems overly optimistic and unrealistic. His advice to political parties may, in fact, also be damaging in the long run for two reasons. First, I think he underestimates the importance and complexity of ethnicity as a social division and a tool for political mobilisation. Second, what he seems to be advocating is two identikit parties appealing to the same group of centrist voters, without reflecting upon the fact that the most likely result of such depolarisation of parties is low turnout, falling party identification and increased disengagement with politics.

Let’s focus on ethnicity first. Cliffe describes the Olympic opening ceremony to illustrate that Britain is now comfortable with ethnic diversity. Research supports this notion, with a sharp trend of increasing tolerance among the young and educated. Yet, despite this, evidence that Muslims may be excluded from this trend is also mounting. Moreover, the prospects for the political mobilisation of those who are still ill-at-ease with cosmopolitan Britain have improved immensely with the arrival of a socially acceptable political party: Ukip. It does not suffer from a fascist and racist heritage and is well placed to voice more mainstream concerns about belonging, identity and nationality.

The growing salience of Scottish identity may well create another opportunity for Ukip, or a party like it, to mobilise new voters around a sense of Englishness. This would further take the anti-cosmopolitan political movement out of the margins of minority-interest politics and firmly into the political mainstream. As a result, I am not sure I buy into Cliffe’s notion that Ukip represents a swan song rather than an expression of persistent political interest that is likely to survive into the future. This makes it more difficult for Labour to defend their traditional leftwing coalition.

One of the reasons why Cliffe’s discussion of ethnicity is so optimistic is his misinterpretation of the situation in the US, which he gives us as an example for Britain to follow. But his vision of melting-pot America, with its first black president, belies a truth that, politically, the US has become more polarised on race since Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008. The momentum might very well be with what they call racial liberals, but it also results in a countermobilisation among racial conservatives. Race is, if anything, a stronger political force in the US, successfully mobilising against Obama, his policies and the Democrats more broadly.

As a result, the growing polarisation around ethnicity is no longer between white and ethnic minority voters, as between those white voters who are comfortable with ethnic diversity and those who are not. This new division is also present in Britain, and, for the foreseeable future, of great consequence to the political parties. My new research shows that the Conservatives may be in a better position to benefit from increasing their ethnic diversity by improving their image among the white, urban, well-educated young with no partisan identity. Labour’s diversity, on the other hand, may hurt them when it comes to wining votes from Ukip and Conservative partisans, as much as it will keep their existing urban cosmopolitan voters happy. 

However, it cannot be taken for granted that racially liberal white voters will naturally align with those of ethnic minority status. In the 2008 Democratic primaries in the US, for instance, Obama’s support was higher among racially liberal white voters, than African American ones, as the latter supported Hillary Clinton’s nomination. Obama was criticised by many in the African American community for ‘acting white’. Similarly, it remains to be seen if ethnic minority Britons will be won over by the new intake of Conservative minority-origin MPs, given their tendency to follow Obama in de-emphasising race in their political careers.

More generally, despite some confident advice from Cliffe, the ethnic minority vote seems hard to pin down. As a group of voters, minorities are hugely diverse and it is not at all clear that they should naturally form the future cosmopolitan electorate of Britain. In fact, many may feel as ‘left behind’ as some white voters and as concerned by rising immigration. The diversity of opinion, values and interests among minorities is hard to over-stress, as it seems the main unifying influence on them is their socialisation into the belief that Labour has, in the past, been better at looking out for their interests. The only sensible advice to Conservatives for increasing their support among minorities is to create a record of passing anti-discrimination and equality policy. The advice to Labour, given the sad reality that minorities constitute the most under-registered group of voters, is to simply register and mobilise this potentially crucial electorate.

So, should both parties, as Cliffe recommends, focus on winning support from cosmopolitan voters? This raises the second major issue with Cliffe’s piece: his advice to both main political parties will exacerbate the problems already facing British politics. As both parties are advised to go after the same section of the electorate, this exacerbates the perennial problem of the two main parties occupying similar ideological ground. Since voters view them as identical, more and more people increasingly do not care which one is in power. Not every electoral cycle produces a spokesman for this view such as Russell Brand, but the broader sense that mainstream politics is irrelevant and unwilling, if not incapable, of bringing about any real change is widespread.

This sense of disillusion with such a centrist politics will not be helped by both main political parties tailoring their policies to the educated and relatively wealthy cosmopolitan voters. The most likely outcome of such strategy, on both ends of the political spectrum, is the rise of minor parties and the fragmentation of the party system. A sound politics of the future cannot and should not always be directed at the centre ground as the recent success of some alternatives, and the unabating voter disengagement, proves.

Maria Sobolewska is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester. She and her colleagues conducted the Ethnic Minority British Election Study at the 2010 general election. She is a team member on the Representative Audit of Britain survey of Parliamentary Candidates at the 2015 general election and on the international project studying representation of citizens of immigrant background

This article is a response to Jeremy Cliffe's Policy Network paper Britain's cosmopolitan future. You can read further responses and a new supplement to the paper here. You can listen to the debate that took place at the paper's launch event here

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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