Dead Men Left

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Entrail-reading and divination

Daniel Brett has assembled a small pile of voting statistics into a digestible form, with a view to looking at the potential impact of the "Muslim vote" in the 2005 election. He thinks it may prove critical in a few constituencies. (It should be noted that it may prove equally decisive in the US Presidential elections: from a majority, Bush's support has collapsed to almost negligible proportions whilst around 15% of US Muslims were undecided as of June.)

Below is a list of constituencies with a high Muslim population (based on 2001 census data) and the previous election result. In my very imperfect and unscientific forecast, I have assumed that Muslim support for Labour has halved and that the support for Labour has dropped by around 5 per cent for the rest of the population. The RESPECT vote is based on 20 per cent Muslim vote swing from the Muslim community plus a very generous 5 per cent support from the general population and most of the People's Justice Party vote. The Liberal Democrat forecast is based on 25 per cent Muslim vote swing from the Labour Party, a 2 per cent national swing towards the party and a 5 per cent increase in its vote if it was in second place in 2001. The Conservative forecast is based on a 5 per cent Muslim vote swing, a 3 per cent swing within the general population and a 5 per cent increase in its vote if it was in second place in 2001. Other parties have been ignored, with a certain percentage of their vote redistributed to the main parties.

Five Labour MPs with constituencies with a Muslim population over 25%
My forecast (+/- 4%) assuming a Muslim backlash against Labour

Birmingham Sparkbrook: Roger Godsiff
Muslim voters: 28,000
2001 result: Labour - 57.5%; Lib Dem - 13.2%; People's Justice Party - 13.0%; Conservative - 10.8%
Forecast: Labour - 37%; Lib Dem - 22%; Respect - 19%; Conservative - 12%
Labour hold with 15% majority

Bradford West: Marsha Singh
Muslim voters: 22,000
2001 result: Labour - 48.0%; Conservative - 37.1%; Green - 7.0%; Lib Dem - 6.4%
Forecast: Labour - 36%; Conservative - 42%; Lib Dem - 11%; Respect - 11%
Conservative gain with 6% majority

Bethnal Green and Bow: Oona King
Muslim voters: 18,000
2001 result: Labour - 50.5%; Conservative - 24.3%; Lib Dem - 15.5%
Forecast: Labour - 35%; Conservative - 28%; Lib Dem - 14%; Respect - 10%
Labour hold with 7% majority

Birmingham Ladywood: Clare Short
Muslim voters: 15,000
2001 result: Labour - 68.9%; Conservative - 11.3%; Lib Dem - 8.2%; People's Justice Party - 6.7%
Forecast: Labour - 52%; Conservative - 18%; Respect - 14%; Lib Dem - 11%
Labour hold with 34% majority

Blackburn: Jack Straw
Muslim voters: 12,000
2001 result: Labour - 54.1%; Conservative - 31.5%; Lib Dem - 8.1%
Forecast: Labour - 44%; Conservative - 38%; Lib Dem - 11%; Respect - 8%
Labour hold with 14% majority

Now, as Daniel says, this is "unscientific and imperfect", but it provides a good start for a little amatuer psephology. Respect has now stood in six separate rounds of elections, to many different bodies, and a variety of different areas - in the case of the Euro-election, across the whole country. Six different results from many different elections does not make a very good base for predictions; and, even if it did, the voting dynamics of general elections are quite different: most obviously in this case, there is less inclination to use a "protest vote". With that significant caveat, I would make the following suggestions:

1. It is not quite clear from Daniel's statistics if he is taking Muslim residents, Muslim voters, or Muslims on the electoral register as the basis for his swing calculations. I think he is using Muslim residents, given that he refers to the 2001 census. These three figures are not the same, and nor do they necessarily vary in a predictable fashion: not all Muslims are entitled to vote - some are under 18; not all entitled Muslims are registered to vote; and not all registered Muslims will vote. The last two factors are potentially significant: it has become clear, during campaigning, that there is a significant problem with voter registration amongst ethnic minorities in the UK. One of Respect's major tasks in some of its target areas will be to run registration drives. (So much for our "undemocratic" tendencies.) In marginal elections, this can make a big difference.

The turnout is also important; UK Muslims are "known to have fairly low turnouts" in elections. General voter turnouts, after reaching a nadir of 19% for the election of Labour MP Hilary Benn in 1999, appear to have started rising again: the trend is slight, but there nontheless. It could be suggested that this is due to both the perception of elections as increasingly competitive, boosting the value of each vote; and that elections are being fought on the basis of anti-Labour mobilisation, with higher turnouts linked to major setbacks for Labour.

Both these factors unsettle Daniel's predictions. If registration is linked to definite support for Respect, then the swing towards Respect becomes comparatively greater. With general election turnout sliding precipitously between 1997 and 2001, the ability to mobilise the otherwise passive may prove the most important factor in elections. If previously disenfranchised Respect supporters can vote, and if registered but disillusioned voters can be persuaded to vote Respect, the apparent swing to Respect would be far larger.

2. Continuing this point, the collapse of support for Labour has generally manifested itself as much reduced turnouts in the absence of effective opposition. This has created a space in previously safe Labour seats for other organisations to develop: the clearest electoral manifestation of this so far has been the rise of a pronounced localism, as seen in the election of H'Angus the Monkey to mayor of Hartlepool, the Kidderminster hospital campaigners, and the Wigan-based Community Action Party. Only the Kidderminster campaign has (as yet) had wider-reaching effects, in Dr Richard Taylor's dramatic election to Parliament in 2001, though the Community Action Party are planning to stand a candidate. None of these organisations are particularly well-defined on a left-right spectrum, and often defiantly so.

Respect's challenge, by standing in the Euro-elections, was to break out of this pattern. Whilst electorally an organised opposition to Labour has emerged often on localist lines, the anti-war movement is national in scope and, at its height, pulled millions into activity. The gamble was that anger against the war had generalised - both politically and geographically - anger against the Labour government, particularly so amongst formerly solidly-Labour British Muslims: where this willingness to break with Labour was backed up by local organisation, Respect achieved some impressive results, most notably in London and Birmingham.

What this has indicated is that, in conditions where Respect does not receive UKIP-style boosting, it is critically dependent on local organisation. In Tower Hamlets, the run of election successes have established an organisational momentum. The Millwall result was highly significant: in largely white area which had one of Respect's worst Euro results in the borough. Respect moved from fourth place (behind the main parties) to second, beating Labour. This strongly suggests that many white voters - in addition to those Asian voters who had previously broken with Labour in the Euro ballot - voted Respect in the by-election.

Daniel implies Respect has established a "protest-plus" dynamic: left-Labour protest votes, plus a significant Muslim block. Assuming the "Muslim block" was established in the Euro-elections June 10, as it was across Tower Hamlets as a whole, to achieve this result required more than just a smallish left protest. (It is also possible Respect benefitted from a non-existent Lib Dem campaign.) The movement was from a determinedly anti-Labour left vote from many Asians, through the creation of local organisations, to persuading many equally disillusioned white former Labour voters to come out and support Respect. The critical element is then carrying that new dynamic through to the general election; I think this is possible, but only on the basis of consistent organisational work. Achieving that puts the election of George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow, for example, well within the bounds of possibility: and certainly both pro-war Oona King and pro-war Jim Fitzpatrick should fear for their political futures.