Why Politicians Must Engage With Ethnic Minority Voters

13/02/2015 17:15 GMT | Updated 15/04/2015 10:59 BST

Last week, National Voter Registration Day took place - as the name suggests, encouraging people to register to vote ahead of the general election. However, many people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are not on the electoral roll, and the switch to individual registration may only make this worse. So how can politicians engage BAME people and encourage them to vote on the 7 May?

The 2015 general election is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. But one thing we do know is that the BAME vote will be crucial. Last year, Operation Black Vote published research showing that the BAME population is bigger than the majority of the sitting MP in over 160 marginal seats. This includes areas such as Ipswich, Southampton and Oxford, which suggests that this is rapidly becoming a national issue rather than one that only affects inner cities. Meanwhile, the thinktank British Future estimates that a quarter of a million first-time voters in May will come from BAME backgrounds - although young people, particularly students, are another group who are under-represented on the electoral roll.

These figures show that politicians of all parties can no longer afford to ignore the power of BAME voters - or take them for granted. Yet every day there seems to be a new article saying that they are not reaching these constituents. So what can they do to connect with them?

We know that there is a significant gap between the number of white and BAME people who are not registered to vote; for example, Black Africans are four times less likely to be registered than white people. BAME voters are also less likely to be canvassed by politicians, despite research by Professor Anthony Heath showing that people are significantly more likely to vote when canvassed regardless of their ethnicity. Finally, there is also a lack of BAME representation in Parliament. Our Race at the Top report found that 27 BAME MPs were elected in 2010, but if Britain's non-white population were to be represented proportionally, there would be 117.

So what's the solution? Well, having more ethnic minority candidates in winnable seats would be a start. Not only would this create potential new role models for young BAME people, it may also incentivise BAME people to vote. Whilst 14% of candidates selected in incumbent party seats are BAME, there are still a number of seats across the country where organisations have still not selected their candidates; these could potentially be ripe for BAME candidates to get into and gain experience of campaigning, as well as making a decisive statement about the party's commitment to diversity

However, we need clear evidence that there is a strong commitment from senior members of the political parties to get more BAME candidates. This will lead to action being taken to break down the barriers that surround standing for election. There have been good initiatives by all the parties to encourage more women to consider becoming MPs, and I would encourage senior politicians to think about how those strategies could be applied to attracting and successfully selecting BAME potential candidates. They could also employ tactics which have been used in other areas of recruitment, such as mandatory unconscious bias training for all recruitment, which has been shown to lead to BAME and white candidates being hired equally.

Finally, it's key that parties offer policies which show that they take BAME voters seriously. Race for Opportunity has been working closely with some politicians and Minsters in recent months to ensure that race equality is high on the agenda in the run-up to the election, and we've achieved huge successes including 'and race' being included in the preface of the Corporate Governance Code in 2014 with full consultation planned in 2016 and promised reviews into BAME representation on boards. Of course that is not to say that BAME voters do not care about the same things that other voters do - education, health, the economy - but showing that politicians are serious about supporting BAME voters to achieve their potential may boost their engagement.

We don't know yet who will win the election, but we do know they can't win it without BAME voters. What we need now is for politicians to show that they want those votes - by getting out there, engaging with their BAME constituents and encouraging them to register, regardless of their voting intentions. Whatever the outcome, we want to see a Parliament that truly reflects the diversity of modern Britain.