As if the scale of the Lib Dem defeat wasn’t bad enough closer analysis shows that the party did even worse, if that is possible, in seats with higher black, Asian and minority ethnic populations.

As a general rule, the bigger the BAME population the worse the Lib Dems fared. The national swing against the party was minus 15 percent, but it was minus 30 percent in some heavily multicultural seats.

Predictable maybe, but unless the Lib Dems address their ‘ethnic deficit’ this one-off protest could become the norm.

If the party do not reach out to BAME communities in the next term it will quickly see the brand become toxic, a byword for white middle classes who don’t understand or care for diverse populations.

With demographic predictions by Policy Exchange showing the UK is on course to have a 30 percent BAME electorate by 2050 - 50 percent in England - failure to make inroads here could condemn the Lib Dems to irrelevance in modern Britain for generations to come.

The question for shell-shocked Lib Dems is how much do they want to connect with voters of colour? There has been much debate about the future of the party on forums such as LibDemVoice, but virtually nothing has been said about their race problem.

This is a disastrous oversight. The loss of the BAME vote may have been largely down to the coalition but inability to repair the damage will be the responsibility of the grassroots membership.

Labour hardly increased their share of the BAME vote, despite communities of colour having been disproportionately hit hard under coalition austerity.

The Runnymede Trust estimate that Labour took 70 percent of the BAME vote in non-target seats, up a measly two points from 2010, and up six points in target seats. The Tories took 20 percent, up four points. The Greens overtook the Lib Dems.

What this shows is that the minority ethnic vote is still up for grabs. In all probability the longstanding drift away from Labour is continuing apace and a large slice of it could yet still be within reach for Liberal Democrats.

Alternatively, this election could signal the end of notable BAME support for the Lib Dems for generations. It’s up to the party.

BAME communities are increasingly important in UK elections as diverse populations move out of safe Labour seats into marginal constituencies.

During the election it was notable that Lib Dems did not speak to the aspirational or the down-pressed BAME electorate, and was too busy talking about stability to mention equality.

A far cry from Nick Clegg’s ambition, shortly after being elected leader, to rival Labour in its’ inner city heartlands.

Lynne Featherstone lost with a negative 15 percent swing in the highly multicultural Hornsey and Wood Green. Brent Central saw a 21 percent swing against.

One exception was in Bradford East, where the much-maligned David Ward limited the damage, undoubtedly with the help of many Asian voters.

The Lib Dem lost all seven of the Labour-facing seats Operation Black Vote highlighted in their 2013 ‘Power of the Black Vote’ report, where BAME voters outnumbered the then MPs’ 2010 majority.

Of the 11 Tory-facing Lib Dem seats highlighted by Operation Black Vote only Tom Brake in Carshalton and Wallington survived.

But the rejection of Lib Dems in these held seats is nothing compared to the drop in Lib Dem support in multicultural seats held by other parties, particularly in London, the most diverse of all cities.

Labour saw big gains in Bermondsey, Wolverhampton, Bradford, Walthamstow, Poplar, Bethnal Green, Ilford North and Southall. It is likely BAME votes played a major part in this.

In fact the Lib Dems lost their deposits in seven of the top ten seats with the largest BAME populations. Mercifully the tide against the party was less severe in Birmingham than London where candidates were hammered in all non-target seats.

Half of all Lib Dems standing in London lost their deposit. If you exclude held seats in London, there were only three where the party reached double figures - Terry Stacy in Islington South, Shas Sheehan in Wimbledon and Robin Metzer in Richmond Park; the latter a held seat until 2010.

While the party struggled nationally, with 7.9 percent of the UK vote, the average Lib Dem vote in non-held seats in London was 4.9 percent, admittedly higher than Brian Paddick’s 4.1 percent in the 2012 mayoral elections but still pretty woeful.

The Lib Dems failure in London is symptomatic of the party’s inability to connect with BAME voters.

This is caused by a number of factors; the absence of any MPs of colour, lack of connection with community leaders, and the fact that many BAME communities have suffered disproportionately in the recession and as a result of public sector austerity cuts – or more accurately the failure of Lib Dems to acknowledge this and propose policies to specifically address this.

The Lib Dems have never really got to grips with institutional racism in society, or indeed within its ranks. Today it needs to focus on both.

The party missed a trick by lacking the ambition to match or better Labour’s offer to BAME communities.

If the manifesto had adopted all recommendations of the race equality taskforce, voted through at the 2013 federal conference, and the 2014 equalities working group, they would have got close to matching Labour’s offer to BAME communities.

Lib Dems are habitually slow in responding to the big talking points in BAME communities, from Africans drowning in the Mediterranean and anger at cartoons of the prophet Mohammad, to diversity in policing.

The overriding impression is of a party whose finger is not on the pulse, a largely all-white middle class party who do not understand BAME citizens, an image reinforced by lack of racial diversity in parliament.

The party doesn’t even monitor the ethnicity of its own membership and side-lines its own affiliated group representing BAME members while any party activist who trolls and abuses BAME members is usually ignored rather than confronted.

Party president Sal Brinton has promised a ‘Morrissey II’ inquiry looking at issues of race, which is welcome. But the party need to go a lot further if they want turn the tide.

SLF has a crucial role to play. Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) cannot take this issues forward on its own. An alliance of like-minds is essential to getting race back on the Lib Dem agenda.

The party should work with both EMLD and SLF to draw up a plan to engage with BAME communities at a local level; introduce a programme of diversity training in each and every seat and best practice across the whole party; bring in all-BAME shortlists; and devise new radical policies to address race inequality in society.

Campaigns and policy announcements on race equality need to be tied closely with targeted membership recruitment and backwoodsmen in the party’s grassroots who are resistant to change should be faced down.

Policies to address unequal racial outcomes should be brave and far reaching, including embracing affirmative action, devised in consultation with community leaders and race equality experts to get buy-in, and backed up by sustained efforts to ‘sell’ those policies to the electorate.

All this is achievable if the will is there. There is a clear choice facing the party if it recognises that BAME support will not simply drift back naturally without lifting a finger. Hope in evolution has never worked on race. I hope SLF will step up to the plate to put these issues at the centre of the post mortem.

Lester Holloway is a former Lib Dem councillor and secretary of EMLD. He resigned from the party in 2014 in protest at what he describes as a failure to tackle explicit racism and remains independent.

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  • As a Party we would benefit from sitting up and listening to the wise words of Lester who remains a ‘liberal’ to the core, and I hopefully look forward to his return when the Party chooses to take note of its obvious lack of diversity and starts the process of changing this.

    The Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats remains committed to promoting the core values of the Party, which supports greater diversity and inclusivity.

    Surely the time has come to seriously look at the benefits of an affirmative action .

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat – Chair
  • I agree with a lot of this, however, in my humble opion a focus on aspiration above all else is what will appeal to BAME voters.

    Also > “the fact that many BAME communities have suffered disproportionately in the recession and as a result of public sector austerity cuts” < I’d love to see the statistics that show this. Do you have them available?
  • I agree with much of this Lester but the situation in Southwark was/is far more complex than you imply
  • First class article Lester. I agree with your points. I am bewildered by the continuing ‘us and them’ among Lib Dem officers and spokespeople when referring to BAME voters. It gives the impression of a majority of ‘indigenous white’ British folk discussing a minority who are not among their number. It’s done unthinkingly but that doesn’t make it right. ‘Indigenous white’ British are not clearly in a majority in London. There are thriving liberal political parties in countries where the families or grandparents of BAME people in London come from. Sometimes I think Lib Dems have silent assumptions that there are cultural inhibitors at work here in the BAME communities. If so, it’s a myth. We have to look seriously at ourselves, for the lack of political support from BAME communities. Not just policies but our attitudes and broader understanding. The cultural inhibitors may be within the Lib Dems themselves.
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    Lester Holloway argues that the Lib Dems aren't connecting with BAME voters
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    Lester Holloway argues that the Lib Dems aren't connecting with BAME voters