The religious life of a ‘plural city’

Stephen H. Jones and Dominic Baker

Leicester_City_CentreLeicester is an extraordinarily rich and complex city, and it is easy to make mistakes about its population and its politics. Its religious makeup has altered again and again over the last hundred years. In this article, Stephen H. Jones and Dominic Baker introduce the city and provide background information that is crucial to understand why it has flourished in the past and the difficulties that it may face in future.

This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Leicester.

Get a pdf of this article here. Click on any of the images below to enlarge them. For more maps and further details about Leicester see our resources section. 

The 2011 census revealed something significant about Leicester: at some point during the last decade it became, earlier than many demographers predicted, a ‘plural city’ in which no ethnic group has an overall majority. While 60.5 per cent of the city identified as ‘White British’ in 2001, this had fallen to 45 per cent by 2011 as existing and new ethnic minority populations expanded. Today, the proportion of White British people in Leicester is almost half that of England as a whole (80 per cent). Indeed, outside of London and some of its surrounding towns, Leicester is the most religiously and ethnically diverse place in Britain, with a greater percentage of its population born abroad (33 per cent) than anywhere else.[1]

Leicester is, then, a distinctive city, and for a whole number of reasons. While now known for its religious communities, it has a strong historical tradition of Nonconformism and secularism. Its long-term leftist political leanings have led to it being christened ‘red Leicester’ – a pun on the local cheese. Its migrant population is also unusual, containing a high number of East African Asians who have shaped its political landscape. Yet with the city becoming more religiously and ethnically complex over the last decade, policymakers in the city are now facing a new set of challenges.

‘Twice migrants’: the making of Asian Leicester

Although Leicester’s reputation as a religiously diverse place is largely the result of migration to the city from beyond the UK since the 1950s, it has long been known as a region in which an unusually wide range of faiths could be found. Host to the early reformer John Wycliffe during the fourteenth century, the city was regularly referred to as the ‘metropolis of Dissent’ up until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Ten ‘Dissenters’ meeting houses’ were located in Leicester the start of the nineteenth century, including spaces for Baptists, Huntingdonians, Unitarians and Methodists.[2] The city also hosted various atheist groups, including what claims to be the world’s oldest secular society.

Since then, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have become the most notable religious minorities in the city. These populations are comprised mainly of Gujarati Indians who had migrated to East African countries but who were forced to leave by the ‘Africanisation’ policies implemented in states such as Uganda and Kenya in the 1970s. Over 20,000 East African Asians came to Leicester between 1971 and 1978 – in spite of efforts by the city council to dissuade them[3] – and Gujarati is now the second most widely spoken language in the city after English (there are 36,000 Gujarati speakers in total).

These ‘twice migrants’ arrived in England with entrepreneurial skills, knowledge of English and a good education. Unlike the South Asian migrants that moved to the North in the 1960s and ’70s, they usually migrated as families rather than in a ‘chain’, where adult males migrate first, followed later by close and then extended family members.[4] They also tended to move into private housing in inner city areas, such as Spinney Hills, which meant that potentially divisive competition for social housing with the white working class residents in estates on the outskirts of the city was avoided.[5]

The making of the ‘faith sector’ in Leicester

Historically Leicester has been a stronghold for the left in Britain, with its ‘Secular Hall’ especially being associated with Marxism and socialism.[6] The Labour Party has a long history of electoral success in the region; indeed, Ramsey MacDonald, the first ever Labour politician to become prime minister, entered Parliament as the MP for Leicester in 1906. Yet while it has been a base for the left, prior to the 1970s the city repeatedly witnessed far-right anti-immigration activism. The early influx of Afro-Caribbeans and Asians in the 1950s prompted the Conservative MP Cyril Osborne to author an article, published on the front page of the Illustrated Leicester Chronicle in 1955, stating that Britain ‘is a white man’s country and I want it to remain so’.[7] Throughout the 1960s the National Front marched regularly and attracted the votes of a large number of residents.

The transformation of the city from one that made concerted efforts to deter immigrants to one that welcomed them occurred over a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s and was driven by activists within and outside the city council. In the ’70s a progressive caucus emerged in opposition to the council’s leadership that gradually ascended to power, consolidating support for Labour among ethnic minorities and ushering in a new era of multicultural politics.[8] Relationships began to form between the ethnic community associations established by new migrants and the council, police and local media. These were easier to build in Leicester than in many other cities due to the emerging, upwardly mobile East African Asian population. Yet even given this advantage such links were novel and they have justly been widely praised.[9] Some of the oldest groups, such as the Federation of Muslim Organisations and the Leicester Council of Faiths, are now almost a quarter of a century old, while others, such as the Faith Leaders Forum (set up and convened by the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens) and the Leicester Multicultural Advisory Group (set up by the Leicester Mercury), were established in the last decade to respond to the demands of the post-9/11 political environment.

A superdiverse city? Leicester in the 21st century

Since 2001, Leicester’s ethnic composition has changed substantially as Polish, Turkish Kurdish, Afghan and Somali migrants have moved to the city. Of these newer groups, the most significant are the Poles (who number around 6,000)[10] and Somalis (who number somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000).[11] The Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations of Leicester also nearly doubled between 2001 and 2011, partly due to migration within the UK and partly due to these groups’ higher fertility rates. (In 2001 the average age of Indians in Leicester was 31.8, whereas for Pakistanis the figure was just 26.)[12]

Leicester’s recent changes are in fact illustrative of national patterns. Like many other cities, its policies for managing diversity were created to respond to a time when most ethnic and religious minorities originated from former British colonies. Yet as the sociologist Steven Vertovec has recently argued, ethnic minorities now come from a far broader range of origins and often have quite different legal statuses. (For example, Poles in Leicester are mainly economic migrants, whereas most Somalis are refugees, many of whom have come to the UK via the Netherlands). The census data reflect this. UK census categories focus upon immigrant groups from the Commonwealth countries. Yet as can be seen from the difference between the charts in Figure 1, much of the growth in Leicester ‘s ethnic minority population has come from non-Commonwealth countries that the census aggregates into ‘White: Other’, ‘Other Asian’ and ‘Black: African’. Leicester has thus become an excellent example of what Vertovec calls ‘superdiversity’.[13]

Change in ethnic groups
Figure 1: The ethnic composition of Leicester in 2001 and 2011 (based on ONS Census data)

This transition has had a highly significant impact upon the religious composition of Leicester and, by extension, its religious politics. In 2001 the percentage of people identifying as Christian in Leicester was much lower than the national average (of 71.7 per cent), but still fairly substantial, at 44.7 per cent of the population. Hindus were the second largest group, at 14.7 per cent, and Muslims the third, at 11 per cent. In the time since, the proportion of Christians has declined (to 32.4 per cent) and the proportion of Hindus has remained roughly the same (15.2 per cent). The proportion of Muslims, however, has grown markedly and now makes up 18.6 per cent of the city’s population (see Figure 2), while the proportion of non-religious has also grown, in line with national changes in faith identification.

Change in religious groups
Figure 2: Percentage change in the religious composition of Leicester between 2001 and 2011 (based on ONS Census data)

Leicester has since the 1970s had an unusually large Hindu population (nationally, Muslims in England outnumber Hindus three to one). As Richard Bonney observes, it has been viewed as a ‘Hindu city’: a place synonymous with Diwali celebrations – Leicester has the largest outside of India – and the shops selling saris and jewellery dotted along the ‘Golden Mile’ on Belgrave Road.[14] Now, though, this perception seems increasingly misplaced. Not only are Muslims Leicester’s largest religious minority, they are generally much younger than the Christian, Hindu and Sikh populations (though not the ‘non-religious’ population, which is young in Leicester as it is elsewhere: see Figure 3). Muslims in Leicester are thus almost certain to become more significant in coming years.

Population pyramids
Figure 3: Population pyramids for religious groups in Leicester

Yet it would be simplistic to see this change as one ‘faith community’ expanding while others decline. The Muslim population of Leicester, which was always diverse, has become much more ethnically mixed. While the term ‘faith community’ always has to be used with caution, there is in Leicester now an added danger of conflating distinct groups of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Somalis, Afghan’s and Kurds – groups which speak different languages and worship in different mosques.

Current political debates and challenges

Managing this rapidly changing diversity is one of the main challenges facing Leicester, and its faith sector, today. Established representative bodies such as the Council of Faiths, the Faith Leaders Forum and the Federation of Muslim Organisations were all established long before the new groups arrived and it has been a struggle to include them, though efforts have been made by all of these organisations to do so. Involving young Leicester residents, who did not share the passage to Leicester from Africa as the Gujarati migrants of the 1970s did, in the civic life of the city has also been identified as a pressing need.[15]

Finally, despite substantial change within the city in the last ten years, the populations of faith groups – especially Muslims and Hindus – remain concentrated in specific districts (see Figure 4 and Figure 5). The extent to which this suggests self-segregated communities living ‘parallel lives’ is a matter for debate. It is easy to overlook the outward migration of ethnic minority populations over the last ten years, with the new Somali population tending to settle in areas once dominated by Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Gujarati Indian Muslims such as Highfields, where the cost of living is low (see Figure 6). Even so, the fact that the Latimer and Spinney Hills areas have, respectively, 70 per cent Hindu and 70 per cent Muslim populations (some districts are 80 per cent one faith) is likely to concern policymakers in the city, especially given that concerted efforts have been made to promote ethnic mixing since the community cohesion agenda was introduced in 2002.[16]

Figure 4: Percentage Hindu population by local super-output area
Figure 5: Percentage Muslim population by local super-output area
Figure 6: Percentage population born in Somalia by local super-output area

What might be needed in Leicester, ultimately, is a new method of managing diversity that moves away from the focus on communities from former commonwealth countries. As Stephen H. Jones explains elsewhere in this series, the current approach, with its reliance on East African Asian leaderships, has much to recommend it but it has significant limitations too. Quite what such a method might look like, though, no-one can yet say.

Stephen H. Jones is Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and one of the editors of Public Spirit. He is a sociologist of religion specialising in Muslims and Islam in Britain. In 2012 he carried out research in Leicester as part of the ESRC/AHRC Religion and Society Programme project ‘Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance’.

Dominic Baker is an Insight Analyst at Kensington and Chelsea Council, where he works as a social researcher, a crime analyst and as the corporate lead on Census and other demographic data.

[1] For an analysis of this based on the 2001 census see Steven Vertovec, ‘Super-diversity and Its Implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 6 (November 2007): 1024–1054.

[2] R. Guy Waddington, Leicester: The Making of a Modern City (Leicester: Geo Gibbons and Co., 1932), 144.

[3] Steven Vertovec, ‘Multicultural, multi-Asian, multi-Muslim Leicester: Dimensions of Social Complexity, Ethnic Organization and Local Government Interface.’, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Sciences 7, no. 3 (1994): 259–274.

[4] Richard Bonney and William Le Goff, ‘Leicester’s Cultural Diversity in the Context of the British Debate on Multiculturalism’, The International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations 6, no. 6 (2007): 47.

[5] Gurharpal Singh, ‘A City of Surprises: Urban Multiculturalism and the “Leicester Model”’, in A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain (London: Hurst & Co., 2006), 296–297.

[6] Ned Newitt, A People’s History of Leicester: A Pictorial History of Working Class Life and Politics (Derby: Breedon, 2008).

[7] quoted in Lorna Chessum, From Immigrants to Ethnic Minority: Making Black Community in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 75.

[8] See Singh, ‘A City of Surprises’.

[9] See for example Ted Cantle, Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team (London: Home Office, HMSO, 2001), 8.

[10] According to the 2011 census there are 6,192 polish speakers in Leicester in 2011 (not including anyone under three years of age) and 6,417 people who were born in Poland.

[11] The exact size of the Somali population is hard to assess. The 2011 census suggests 3,209 Leicester residents were born in Somalia and 3,331 were Somali speakers, but these numbers have to be interpreted in light of Somalia’s linguistic diversity and the fact that many Somali migrants to Leicester came via the Netherlands. Between 2001 and 2011 the ‘Black African’ population grew by 9,048. For an estimate of the Somali population see Open Society Institute, Muslims in Leicester (London: Open Society Institute, 2010), 31–32.

[12] Leicester City Council, The Diversity of Leicester: A Demographic Profile (Leicester: Leicester City Council, 2008), 5.

[13] Vertovec, ‘Super-diversity and Its Implications’.

[14] Richard Bonney, Understanding and Celebrating Religious Diversity: The Growth of Diversity in Leicester’s Places of Religious Worship Since 1970 (Leicester: University of Leicester, Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism, 2003),

[15] Philip Lewis, Young, British and Muslim, annotated edition (London, UK: Continuum, 2007); John Clayton, ‘Living the Multicultural City: Acceptance, Belonging and Young Identities in the City of Leicester, England’, Ethnic and Racial Studies (2011): 1–21.

[16] I&DeA, Taking Forward Community Cohesion in Leicester (Leicester: Improvement and Development Agency/Leicester City Council, 2002).

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