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Global Social Policies: Participation in Political and Local Decision Making for Ethnic Minority Groups

| January 4, 2015

The following case study looks at social policy in the area of participation in political and local decision making, for the particular group of socially excluded ethnic minorities. Participation has become a government focus since the late 1990s, and it has been recognised that some groups are more excluded than others from decision making processes, and there has been much discussion about the best ways to involve them. Research has shown, for example, that people from black Caribean and black African communities were the least likely to vote in the UK (Electoral Commission 2002). The case study first considers the context of the issue, examining the background in terms of different facets including the political, legal and cultural contexts. Next, stakeholder perspectives are addressed, followed by current policy, theory and contemporary practice. Finally, recommendations for new policy are discussed. The main focus of this study is the UK situation.

1. Introduction

The following case study looks at social policy in the area of participation in political and local decision making, for the particular group of socially excluded ethnic minorities. Participation, or the idea that all citizens could take an active part in shaping and/or making the political decisions that affect them, both locally and nationally, became a popular notion during the last Labour government. However, it was recognised that some groups are more excluded than others from decision making processes, and there has been much discussion about the best ways to involve them. This issue is of personal interest for me, as I have been involved in a small way in local community groups, and have noted that the main ‘voices’ emerging from these groups are predominantly white, middle class, well educated, of higher than average income and over 50 years old. It has always occurred to me that there need to be ways of ensuring that all people who make up a local community are heard in decision making.   In terms of ethnic minorities, research backs this up. In 2002, research by the Electoral Commission found that people from black Caribbean and black African communities were the least likely to vote in the UK, due perhaps to dissatisfaction with the voting process and also to the younger average age of BME groups as well as the higher levels of social and economic deprivation (Electoral Commission 2002)

The following divides into sections. First, the context of the issue is considered, examining the background in terms of different facets including the political, legal and cultural contexts. Next, the case study considers stakeholder perspectives. There are many different views which impact on the matter, and these multiple views are examined. The next section looks at current policy, theory and contemporary practice, examining how the idea of participation, particularly for ethnic minorities, came about theoretically, and the ways in which it has been taken on through government policy and recommendations from key bodies. Finally, recommendations for new policy are discussed.   The main focus of this study is the UK situation, although the issues are one with resonance across Europe and beyond (Jurado 2008).

2. Context of Issue

It is essential to look at the wider context to understand social policy and any needs to extend or change such policy. In the case of participation for ethnic minority groups, this involves different aspects. Politically, the notion of participation has been around for some years, and this will be discussed in more detail in section 4 below. However, it is certainly the case that there has been increasing political emphasis on the need to be “responding to, and engaging with, the needs of those from socially and economically disadvantaged groups – the socially excluded” and enabling them to play a bigger part in the decisions which affect them (The Electoral Commission 2005, p. 1). The issue has a particular political resonance for the main parties, as it has been shown that people from minority ethnic communities, particularly the black Caribbean and African communities, are less likely to vote in the UK (The Electoral Commission 2005). However, the concern with participation in regards to voting might mask a hidden agenda: if minority ethnic communities are more likely to vote for the Labour party, there is a vested interest in them investing in understanding why they fail to vote.

There are other background issues which impact upon participation for minority ethnic groups.   Understanding the context in this case is tricky, as it involves trying to understand why groups are socially excluded. Morris (2001) points out that participation is lower when groups suffer a range of problems. A combination of unemployment, lack of education and training, low income levels, unsuitable housing, living in areas of high crime, poor health and breakdown of family units are all associated with social exclusion and hence act as barriers for participation (Social Exclusion Task Force 2008).   Poverty in particular acts as a barrier to many minority ethnic groups. A 2008 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that while all minority ethnic groups experience lower levels of poverty than they did 10 years ago, 65% of Bangladeshis, 55% of Pakistanis and 45% of Black Africans live in poverty, compared with only 20% of white British people, 30% of Caribbean’s and 25% of Indians (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2008).

However, poverty is only one issue in understanding why ethnic minorities are relatively excluded from political participation in the UK. The complex web of reasons why ethnic minority groups in the UK have been studied by the Economic and Social Research Council. They suggest that the reasons need to be situated in a complex attitudinal and circumstantial web. Key areas are first the values and orientations that individuals have in terms of their cultural roots: to what extent are the committed to democratic values, to British society, and what is their orientation towards their country of origin? Second, what is their social position in the UK: have their cultural and racial demands been met (for example over rights to wear traditional dress), to what extent do they live in social deprivation, do they have concerns with political and religious matters, for example over the Afghan war). Third, what is their experience of British society so far: are they excluded from the labour market, discriminated against, and what access do they have to citizenship and voting? Finally, the extent to which participation takes place will also be influenced by resources, both individual and collective, in terms of their skill sets, political contacts, degree of acculturalisation and possession of social capital (Howat et al [online] 2011).

The background to the issue is therefore a very complex one. Additionally, there is some suggestion that (Jurado 2008) it is nowadays more difficult for minority ethnic groups, particularly immigrant groups, to become fully active citizens. This is the case not only in the UK but also elsewhere in Europe, where “stricter naturalization requirements, including more stringent language tests and additional examinations” have been introduced. There is also a growing idea that the notion of multiculturalism has failed, and that a concept of “earned citizenship” needs to force integration (Jurado 2008, p. 4). While this move might mean that people engage actively in this ‘earned citizenship’, and hence take on a more active role politically, it is also possible that this increased stringency leads to further marginalization and a feeling of being disempowered from political decisions.

3. Stakeholder Perspectives

There are a number of stakeholders to take into account for this issue, including members of minority ethnic groups in general, government, the wider public, and others. First, what are the attitudes of the minority ethnic groups in the UK in terms of voting and other forms of political engagement? A 2002 study (by the Commission and Operation Black Vote) revealed that over 40% said that if black people were better represented in politics they themselves would be likely to vote, and nearly as many said that if they felt politicians were concerned with black people they would also be likely to vote. One drawback of this study is that it was carried out in London and the West Midlands only, so may reflect geographical bias. The same study also showed that over 60% thought there would never be a black Prime Minister in the UK.   At the same time, there is evidence that the BME population are aware of voting as a civic responsibility, with nearly 90% disagreeing that voting is not important (Richards and Marshall 2003).   It should also be pointed out that there are many different ethnic minorities within the UK, and what may be true of one group may not be true of another. There is a “need for sensitivity to the needs of different communities” (Richards and Marshall 2003, p.4) as election turnout levels, for example, vary between different BME groups (participation is higher amongst Asians than Black Afro-Caribbeans), although overall turnout has increased over the last 10 years (Electoral Commission 2002). Failure to appear on the electoral register also varies across BME groups, with those of black African descent having high registration levels (Richards and Marshall 2003). BME groups display a range of attitudes which mean they are less likely to vote and to participate in decision-making processes in general, including apathy about politics, alienation from the results, and scepticism about whether involvement can actually make any difference (Richards and Marshall 2003).

There are other stakeholders to consider. Political parties and government have an ethical duty to ensure that all UK citizens participate in democratic decision making. However, as mentioned above, if BME groups are more likely to vote for (for example) a labour government, there may also be a degree of self-interest in attempts to persuade towards participation.   The general public might also have a different viewpoint about participation than either of the above groups. It is likely that a certain proportion of the population in the UK are overtly or covertly racist, which is likely to mean that some members of the public do not want to encourage full participation by ethnic minorities. A study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (2004) found that “there is ample evidence that deeply rooted hostility exists towards immigration groups with largely different cultural and ethnic background and this hostility manifests itself in remarks of politicians and opinion leaders”, with concerns centring on worries about the labour market and welfare system (Dustmann and Preston 2004). The challenge is to tackle this type of racism to ensure that all are behind attempts to broaden political participation.

4. Policy, Theory and Contemporary Practice

The notion of participation in general has had a substantial history in contemporary theoretical discussions, with an influence upon the public, politics and decision makers (Brodie et al 2009). It broadly involves a number of theoretical ideas: the idea that democratic institutions can become stronger by involving the people who are affected by their decisions (Beetham et al 2008); that by being involved with decision making communities become more cohesive (Home Office 2004), and that it offers a way for public services to be better attuned to people’s needs and hence more effective (HM Government 2007). Participation has also been associated with increasing a person’s sense of themselves as someone who can change the course of public events (Popay et al 2007). In terms of definitions, there are a number of different ways of defining the notion, with a common core sense of an individual being a part of larger scale public events, shaping them and influencing the course of future events. There is a widespread and perhaps unquestioned assumption that participation is desirable (Brodie et al 2009), although it can be asked whether participation in fact has drawbacks, for example where what is going on in the public arena is not for the general good of the majority.

Contemporary practice in terms of political participation in the UK have developed gradually, and there is a long tradition of individuals becoming involved in the way the state operates, particularly in terms of influencing political decisions in the widest sense, for example by forming associations and self-help groups to lobby those in power, guilds and trade unions, and similar societies (Brodie et al 2009). In the 60’s problems of racial tension came to the surface, which marked the start of a movement towards public participation (Taylor 1995). The period to the 60’s in the UK saw an increase in immigration, particularly from countries involved in the commonwealth or countries formally British colonies, as a result of a need for labour. The period up to the early 60’s had seen “a long process of … dismantling and differentiating .. rights in immigration policy” (Law et al 2008, p. 4-5). Immigrants settled into “large and eventually well-organized communities”, and this, together with clear differences in their cultural history, economic position and ideas about political participation and citizenship meant that challenges to ethnic minority participation in politics were embedded from early days (Law et al 2008). A recent theoretical concept of hyper- or super-diversity has suggested that the multiple ethnic make-up of current UK society makes it increasingly complex (Vertovec 2007), and the challenges of participation are thus exacerbated, as it is harder to form a sense of a cohesive society in which to participate.

By the 90’s, there was a move for the state to retreat from public service provision and community development had a low profile, but this was reversed by the New Labour government, elected in 1997. Participation was placed firmly back on the agenda, with the third sector relied upon to strengthen “links between the state, communities and individual citizens” (Brodie et al 2009, p. 8). A number of initiatives to increase participation were developed for example education for citizenship, increased consultations and encouraging volunteering (Brodie et al 2009). The 2008 White Paper ‘Communities in control: real people, real power’ looks at the nature of influence, power and control and sets out ways for ordinary people to engage with powerful institutions (Communities and Local Government 2008). The Social Exclusion Unit was set up during the Labour government to research why certain sections of society were excluded from decision making, and assess ways of increasing participation, through for example the Local Strategic Partnership to co-ordinate public agencies. By 2009 local authorities had to embed concepts of empowerment and engagement into the delivery of their services (Brodie et al 2009).   The Conservative-Liberal coalition government has a slightly different focus, with participation seen more in terms of devolving power away from government to local communities and increasing a sense of social responsibility in individuals (Brodie et al 2009). However, this could be seen as a way of dividing people, and marginalising excluded groups even further.

5. Recommendations

To some extent the need for policy to reflect the isolation of some ethnic minority groups from the processes of political decision making and participation has already been realised. The 90’s saw New Labour come to power, and efforts to increase citizen participation were stepped up, as was interest in the causes and impacts of social exclusion. Above has been discussed the trends in voting amongst ethnic minority groups, and although there are still discrepancies between BME groups and white British groups in terms of voting behaviour, for example, these are narrowing, with a decrease over the last 10 years.   However, there still seems to be a need to address the issues of hyper diversity, and the extent to which patterns of participation, attitudes and behaviour vary from group to group.   If participation is dependent upon ideas of democracy, ideal government and the duties of a citizen, then attempts to encourage participation need to be attuned to the different ideas held by different groups. Additionally, the phenomenon of hyper diversity means that it is increasingly difficult to get a sense of what participation really means: what is the overall society in which we are being invited to participate? More work needs to be done at national level to build a more cohesive model of UK society as a whole.

The current Conservative-Liberal policy of the ‘Big Society’ and its emphasis upon individual responsibility also gives cause for concern. To a great extent, the advances seen in BME participation in decision-making and politics were a function of moves by the New Labour administration to embed participation in public institutions, for example building consultation into the heart of local government.   It is recommended that action on this scale continues to be appropriate, rather than making participation the responsibility of individual people.

6. References

Beetham, D, Blick, A, Margetts, H and Weir, S (2008) ‘Power and Participation

in Modern Britain: a literature review for Democratic Audit’, Creative Print Group, Wembley

Brodie, E, Cowling, E, Nissen, N, Ellis, A, Paine, E, Jochum, V and Warburton, D (2009) ‘Understanding participation: A literature Review’, Institute for Volunteering Research, UK

Commission and Operation Black Vote (2002) ‘Study’, OBV, London

Dustmann, C and Preston, I (2004) ‘Racial and Economic Factors in Attitudes

to Immigration’, Christian Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, Department of Economics, University College London.

The Electoral Commission, Voter engagement among black and minority ethnic communities (2002), The Electoral Commission, UK

The Electoral Commission (2005) ‘Social Exclusion and Political Engagement’, HMSO, London

HM Government (2007) ‘Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act’,

HMRC, London

Home Office (2004) ‘Firm Foundations: The Government’s Framework for Community Capacity Building, Civil Renewal Unit, London

Howat, N, Norden, O, Williams, J and Pickering E (2011) ‘2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study: Key Findings Technical Report’, [online] (cited 4th May 2012) available from

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2007) ‘Poverty rates among ethnic groups in Great Britain’, JRF, UK

Jurado, E (2008) ‘ Citizenship: tool or reward? The role of citizenship policy in the process of integration’, Policy Network, London

Morris, J (2001) ‘That kind of life?’ Social exclusion and young disabled people with high levels of support needs, Scope, London

Popay, J, Attree, P, Hornby,D, Milton, B, Whitehead, M, French, B, Kowarzik, U, Simpson, N and Povall, S (2007) Community Engagement in Initiatives Addressing the Wider Social Determinants of Health: A Rapid Review of Evidence on Impact, Experience and Process’, HMRC, London


Richards, L and Marshall, B (2003) ‘ Political engagement among black and minority ethnic communities: what we know, what we need to know’, Paper prepared for The Electoral Commission’s research seminar on 3 November 2003, The Electoral Commission, UK


Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (2008) ‘Communities in control: real people, real power’, HMSO, London


Social Exclusion Task Force (2008)

‘Aspiration and attainment amongst young people in deprived communities: Analysis and discussion paper’, Social Exclusion Task Force, UK


Taylor, M (1995) ‘Community work and the state: the changing context of UK practice’, in G Craig and M Mayo (eds) Community Empowerment: A reader in

participation and development, Zed Books, London,


Vertovec, S (2007) ‘Super-diversity and its implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies

30:6, pp. 1024-1054


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