The poor don’t vote: it’s an intuitively held assumption, but it’s also reflected in the data.
Tower Hamlets, however, defies the stereotype, and in a big way. Many of its wards are some of the most deprived in the country, but its levels of voter turnout are puzzlingly above average.
When ELL discovered this startling anomaly, we did a collective double take. Why does Tower Hamlets buck the trend in almost the exact opposite direction? Why do some of the wards with the highest levels of deprivation have higher voter turnout rates than the least deprived wards in the borough?
ELL dug deeper beyond the 2010 election, and found that the trend still held for the past two local elections in 2002 and 2006.
As the interactive graph above demonstrates, low voter turnout is not correlated to deprivation. This was especially true in 2006, when voter turnout rates in deprived wards jumped dramatically. In the 2006 election, close to half of Bromley-by-Bow, the second most deprived ward in the borough, voted. To put this figure into context, the voter turnout rate in London that year was only 37%.
What makes Tower Hamlets different from other deprived boroughs in the city is its high concentration of South Asian, particularly Bangladeshi, residents. This fact in itself does not seem to have much bearing on voter turnout.
Or does it?
Dr. Ed Fieldhouse, professor of Social and Political Science at the University of Manchester, conducted research on ethnic minority voting in the 2001 general election. He said: “One thing we did find was that other things being equal, Asian electors in working-class areas have higher probabilities of turnout, suggesting the effects of class and ethnic concentration may be reinforcing.”
Concluding his research in conjunction with his colleague Dr. David Cutts, he wrote: “Asians living in more diverse areas and those with substantial populations sharing the same ethno-religious origins are more likely to vote than those living outside of these areas. This relationship is robust after controlling for key socio-economic, demographic and political characteristics of areas.”
What Fieldhouse has discovered through academic research, William Howard from the Unite Community Centre in Tower Hamlets can see being played out in the community.
Howard noted: “The Bangladeshi community has been long established in the east London area from the post-war period onwards. They’ve often faced extreme prejudice, and many of them have been involved in very exploitative work such as the garment trade.”
“When you have a long history of being perceived as excluded from the community and under attack—and they most certainly were—that has a very strong, consolidating effect,” he continued. “As such, there are very strong networks in our community.
“While you do have very high levels of deprivation in Tower Hamlets, you also have a long tradition of community and political organisation, often going back to Bangladesh itself. And I think it’s a very positive thing.”
Another possibility that ELL explored to explain the voter turnout anomaly in Tower Hamlets was co-ethnic candidates. Unlike many boroughs in London, the candidates running in Tower Hamlets reflect the community’s ethnic makeup.
Does voter turnout increase in communities where the candidates fielded reflect their ethnicity? According to Nicole Martin, a doctoral student at Oxford University, it can.
In an interview with ELL, Martin discussed some of the research she’s conducted. She said: “There’s a broad body of research from other countries that suggests people tend to vote for people of the same ethnic background as themselves, but it’s been quite difficult to test this [phenomenon] in the UK until recently.”
Martin explained that the research she’s conducted on general elections, which is yet to be published, does point to the fact that, particularly among south Asians, ethnicity can be a factor in voting behavior. She said, however, that the phenomenon hasn’t really played out among non-south Asian ethnicities.
Why is the south Asian community unique in this respect?
Martin said: “To a certain extent, I think it has to do with different patterns of social and economic integration. South Asian groups in the UK are much more likely to live in highly concentrated, clustered groups. With Black Caribbean groups, for example, they tend to be a lot more integrated; there are far more inter-ethnic marriages.”
So what can be learned from Tower Hamlets residents’ propensity to vote, even as the hopelessness of deprivation hangs heavy in the borough?
Although Tower Hamlets can be seen as a special case within a special community, its strong, networked, community cohesion is undeniable. This suggests to us that while voting is of course an individual choice, it’s one that’s far more likely to be made if you feel connected to a wider community, if you feel part of something bigger.
Dr. Anthony Heath, an Oxford University sociologist who has spent a lifetime researching class voting and ethnic inequality, suspects political participation is most effectively driven by personal, social contact, an idea that has been reflected in his research.
“It really works,” he said. “If somebody comes to the door, and they’re friendly and not pushy, it’s much harder to say no, especially if it’s someone from within your community, someone you know. You can ignore a mail blast; you can ignore a tweet. There’s no substitute for knocking on doors.”
Tower Hamlets’ complex social issues, explained in detail in our video interview with William Howard above, will make this May’s local election a particularly important one. Remember, however, that you can’t vote unless you’re registered by the deadline on May 6.
For more information on voter registration, visit Tower Hamlets Council’s webpage on voting here.
By Hajera Blagg & Taku Dzimwasha