New Communities, New Opportunities: Looking Forward to the 2009 Local Elections

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“We sought workers, and in their stead came people”. That remark – now absorbed into German political discourse – is attributed to former German President Gustav Heinemann in the 1960s, speaking at a time when Germany was addressing the consequences of large-scale Turkish immigration.

Fast forward 40 years to the German elections in 2002: media analysts started referring to the children of those Turkish workers, now naturalised German citizens, as ‘Schroeder’s secret weapon’. And with good reason: Schroeder’s 1999 decision to ease naturalisation requirements not only remedied an historic injustice – it also substantially increased his party’s pool of voters. As is the case in other European countries, Germany’s ethnic minorities tend to vote Left.

According to an article by Andreas Wulst, writing in the journal Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, published by the German Centre for Political Education, in 2002, over 62% of Germany’s naturalised Turkish community intended to vote SPD, while a further 22% intended to vote Green and 3% opted for the PDS. In this regard, it should be noted that relatively few ethnic Turks live in Eastern Germany where the PDS is strongest; most of this 3% is probably accounted for by Berlin, where the PDS is politically prominent and there is a large Turkish community.
Germany’s Left parties attracted a massive 87% of the ethnic Turkish vote.

Heinemann’s bon mot can be re-phrased: “We sought workers, and in their stead came voters”.

That lesson has been well learnt by the Left elsewhere in Europe. As the British political scientist A.M. Messina has pointed out1, “ethnic minorities are … a political bloc that is firmly wedded to the Labour Party during good political times and bad”.

Unsurprisingly, given their influence on political outcomes, ethnic minority voting behaviour has been extensively studied in the UK on both a macro and a micro level. On a micro level, Dr. Alistair Clarke’s study of ethnic minority voting behaviour in Birmingham has lessons for urban Ireland in general, and Dublin in particular.
With a population of close to a million, Birmingham is roughly comparable in size to Dublin. Again mirroring Dublin, the city’s ethnic minority populations are concentrated in inner city wards, primarily Lozells and East Handsworth. And, in a further parallel, East Handsworth in particular has traditionally been home to Birmingham’s ethnic minorities over the course of several centuries – mirroring Dublin’s South Inner City, which has attracted waves of migrants from the Huguenots in the late 17th and 18th centuries, to Lithuanian Jews in the 19th century, to immigrants from Asia and the Middle East (and, closing the circle begun over a century ago, Eastern Europe) at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century.

In Birmingham as in Dublin, there is also a clear correlation between the class and ethnicity make-up of certain wards: immigrants in search of cheap housing tend to drift towards working class neighbourhoods, where their political allegiances are shaped not only by their own specific concerns as migrants, but also by the traditional class concerns (and associated voting patterns) of their neighbours.

From the early 1980s, the British Labour Party – already entrenched in these working-class neighbourhoods – deliberately (and successfully) sought to maximise both passive and active immigrant electoral participation. To quote Clarke: “Labour’s domination of Birmingham City Council proceeded in parallel with the expansion of ethnic minority candidates standing for election from 1986 onwards”. During 1996/1997, Labour reached a high of 85 councillors out of 117.

So much for the European experience. What of Ireland?

The immigrant vote is nothing new in Ireland. As far back as 1902, James Connolly published a leaflet in Yiddish when seeking election in the Wood Quay ward. While he lost out to the Redmondite candidate JJ McGaul, he came a respectable second thanks to the Jewish vote – and in particular the Jewish trade union vote.

Over 100 years later, the Irish Left seems to have learnt little from the founder of the Labour Party – or, indeed, from the experience of Left parties elsewhere in Europe. With just two years to go before the 2009 Local Elections, there is little sign that Labour, the Greens or Sinn Fein are making a concerted effort to attract the immigrant vote. And it is a substantial vote. Ireland is one of the few European countries where residency alone grants a vote in local elections.

There are a number of wards where the immigrant vote could have a significant impact, and a few – primarily in Dublin – where the migrant vote could deliver a seat.

With a population of just over 35,000, the South-West Inner City Ward returns three representatives to Dublin City Council. The present make-up is one Labour, one Sinn Fein and one Fine Gael. However, there is a strong possibility that the ward will either be re-drawn to exclude Inchicore/Kilmainham, which accounts for the bulk of the FG vote (the Fine Gael councillor Catherine Byrne, now a TD, obtained the bulk of her vote from Bulfin Estate in Inchicore – which is also the electoral district with the lowest number of migrants in the ward), or will become a four-seater to take account of population increases.

Based on national figures for the under-15s, and extrapolating to remove them, the most recent census figures indicate that, come the 2009 Local Elections, around 31 per cent of those eligible to vote in the ward will be either non-Irish or naturalised Irish (to use the census classifications: Other White, Black or Black Irish, Asian or Asian Irish, or Other). Put another way, nearly one third of the electorate will be members of our new communities.

And if – pre-empting a possible re-drawing of the ward boundaries – one excludes Inchicore, the figure would be even higher.
While local dynamics vary in each ward and each election, between 15% and 18% of first preferences will generally put one in the running for a seat in a three-seater, while the figure for a four seater is anywhere from 12% to 15% of first preferences.

Even taking into account the relatively low turnout among many migrant voters, there is no doubt that the new communities’ vote has the potential to deliver a seat in the South West Inner City in 2009. The only question is who will benefit.
So how can the Left attract – and retain – this new vote?

Firstly, progressive political strategists need to study and analyse the census returns to see where progressive coalitions can most profitably be built with the new communities.

On a micro level, progressive politicians and activists need to ensure that migrant communities are targeted by all campaigns, using a variety of tools ranging from issuing leaflets in the main minority languages to addressing meetings in places where immigrants gather.

The marketplace has already awoken to migrant consumer power: as far back as 2005, the Sunday Business Post noted that companies were targeting their advertising at the various ethnic markets, and billboards in various languages are already a common sight in parts of Dublin with large ethnic populations. Commenting on this phenomenon, Shane McGonigle, managing director of advertising agency Leo Burnett and president of the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland (IAPI), gave advice which is as pertinent to the political as to the commercial marketplace:

‘‘Look for the similarities and respect the differences.” He also noted that just translating an advertisement into another language is not necessarily the best option: ‘‘You dismiss the importance of cultural sensitivity if you just translate”.

Cultural differences offer political opportunities as well as challenges. Left activists seeking to address gatherings of migrants should, for example, recognise that the Nigerian community views its churches not only as places for worship, but also as multi-tasking community centres. While it would be deeply inappropriate (and futile) for a political candidate to seek permission to address parishioners after Mass, it would be culturally acceptable to ask a Nigerian pastor for permission to address a meeting after service.

We need to ensure that members of immigrant communities are actively involved in political activity, as members of activist organisations or political parties. But, in so doing, we also need to recognise the political and cultural backgrounds which may militate against this: those coming from repressive regimes are understandably wary of political or community involvement.

On a macro level, Left politicians must take the lead in addressing discrimination and exclusion – overt and covert, intentional and unintentional – at all levels. Yet the Left has been conspicuously absent from some of the recent debates. Where were the progressive politicians when a Sikh member of the Garda Reserve was prohibited from wearing his turban – despite the fact that the Sikh turban has been incorporated into almost all European military and police uniforms? Where were the progressive politicians when non-Catholic children – primarily immigrants – were refused admission to a National School in Balbriggan, resulting in the hasty establishment of a non-denominational school to cater for minority children? Where were the progressive politicians when Minister Conor Lenihan – the FF minister best-known for his infamous ‘kebab’ quip – launched a report by Migrant Rights Centre Ireland showing that a high proportion of migrant workers are denied written contracts and receive no overtime or sick pay? Of course, none of these issues is of sole concern to the immigrant community: these are issues which are – or should be – intrinsically important to the Left. But the fact that progressive politicians have, in the main, ignored them is scarcely calculated to encourage immigrant political participation.

Labour, in particular, cannot assume that the immigrant vote is its by right. In Germany, the SPD has had to compete with the Greens for the migrant vote. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are increasingly challenging the British Labour Party for the Asian vote, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq war. And, in Ireland, Fianna Fail – the traditional catch-all party – is already turning its attention to this potentially lucrative pool of voters. Ireland’s first black Mayor – Portlaoise’s Rotimi Adebari – had barely been in office a month when the Ceann Comhairle (FF TD John O’Donoghue) held an official lunch for the Mayor and his wife. One could, of course, argue that this was a mere courtesy by the Speaker of the Dail. Or one could surmise that this was the first move in a campaign to recruit a proven vote-winner to the ranks of Europe’s most successful political party. In the words of FF Meath Councillor Jimmy Fegan – commenting on reports that asylum seekers in Mosney had applied to FF Head Office for permission to form a cuman – “Fianna Fail is caring, we are a socially conscious party and I think we can do it [attract the migrant vote] better than anybody else”.

If the past and present augur the future, Cllr. Fegan may well be right.

Of the three left parties, only Labour has made any effort to court the immigrant vote, most recently by distributing leaflets in Polish during the run-up to Poland’s General Election. However, welcome as that initiative was, it had the appearance of an ad-hoc one-off, rather than an integral part of a well-considered long-term strategy designed to recruit both members and potential voters from our new communities.

At a time when Internet campaigning is gaining in importance, none of the three progressive parties cater for ethnic minority communities on their websites.

In contrast, both Fine Fail and Fine Gael have recently included Polish sections on their websites.

One could, of course, argue that Ireland’s two right-wing parties have simply identified a conservative group of potential voters. That argument falls down on reality, however: the Polish community in Ireland does not necessarily conform to a conservative stereotype. During the recent Polish general election, the overwhelming majority of Poles here voted for Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, rejecting the (socially) conservative, ultra-Catholic and nationalist agenda pursued by the Kaczynski brothers. And there is some evidence to show that many of those voting for the Civic Platform did so for tactical reasons, rather than as an endorsement of the Platform’s centre-right economic policies.

There is a far more prosaic reason for Fine Fail’s and Fine Gael’s decision to reach out to Polish voters online: Poles living in Ireland tend to be young, highly educated and computer literate. In other words, they are among the demographic groups most likely to access information online. And one of the factors which has always distinguished the parties of the right from those on the left is efficient, targeted communication and organisation – whether aimed at the ethnic minority population, or the population at large. It’s a lesson the Left would do well to learn.

The 2009 Local Elections will be a litmus test for the Left’s ability to identify with, and attract, large numbers of migrant voters. If we succeed, we will be able to add substantial numbers of local government seats, thus creating the foundations for increased Dail representation in 2012, thanks to the votes of newly-naturalised Irish citizens. If we fail, we will either abandon the migrant voting block to Fianna Fail’s Big Tent or – worse – we will leave the new communities without political representation. And that is the road to alienation, with all its attendant social ills.

1 Messina, A.M. (1997) ‘Ethnic Minorities and the British Party System in the 1990s and Beyond’, in S. Saggar (ed.) Race and British Electoral Politics, London: UCL Press, pp. 47-69

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One Response

  1. WorldbyStorm

    March 4, 2008 8:32 pm

    It’s not just their websites Alex. I have it on very very good authority that FF are producing some leaflets in Polish as well. Which is hugely frustrating because there is a pool of young progressive inclined voters out there who would be willing to at least transfer to parties of the left if the case you made was addressed.

    I suspect though that the answer to your final sentence is that the Left will ignore these potential voters and FF will scoop them up with a populist call.

    Still, one thought that strikes me is that I understand in the Polish election they broke towards the more socially liberal but fiscally conservative Civic Platform rather than the socially conservative but economically populist PiS and allies. Not necessarily heartening on all axis…