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Tories and ethnic minorities: lessons from George W Bush

7 May 2014

12:52 PM

7 May 2014

12:52 PM

Dan Hannan makes many good points in today’s Telegraph as he considers the Conservatives’ grim failure to attract support from black and ethnic minority voters. This isn’t merely a problem for the Tories, it is a crisis.

As I pointed out yesterday, the Tory share of the BME vote in 2010 was exactly the same as their share of the vote in Scotland: 16%. True, this was an improvement on 2005 when only 11% of BME voters endorsed Conservative candidates but that’s a matter of only modest solace for Tory modernisers.

Naturally (this being British politics) there is a thirst to look elsewhere for examples or lessons that might point towards a solution to this particular Tory problem. Like Paul Goodman, Dan Hannan looks to Canada and not without reason.

Equally reasonably, Janet Daley thinks the party might learn something from George W Bush. This, she concedes, is an unfashionable thought but that’s not something that should bother a Tory.

There is something to it, too. Bush did do better amongst Hispanic voters than did either his predecessors or successors at the head of the Republican ticket. In 2004, quite famously (by the standards of these things) exit polls reported he won 44% of the Hispanic vote.

The trouble is that figure is probably not quite right. Bush undoubtedly did better than most GOP candidates but there is some evidence suggesting he didn’t win more than 40% of the Latino vote. Moreover, Bush benefitted from the Texas factor. He won 43% of the Texas Hispanic vote in 2000 and 49% of it in 2004. Outside his home state he did not do quite as well as the headline, national, figures suggest.

But, yes, it was still progress. Progress founded, as Daley says, on being engaged with latino voters to a degree unmatched by previous or subsequent GOP candidates. In 2008 John McCain took 31% of the Hispanic vote and four years later Mitt Romney, disastrously, won only 27% of Hispanic votes.

What went wrong? Well, Republicans started talking about immigration much more than they had during the Bush years. And it wasn’t just what they said but the tone in which they said it that mattered. It reinforced the idea that the party sees immigrants as a problem, not a resource.

Immigration is not actually the chief concern of American latino voters. Some surveys suggest only one in three such citizens consider immigration (that is, immigration reform) a vital issue. Jobs, healthcare and the economy matter more. I suspect the same is true of BME voters in the United Kingdom.

But immigration is what you might term a Gateway Issue. You need to get past it before you can speak about other issues of more immediate concern to voters’ actual lives. You need to earn the right to be listened to. You need license to be heard. You need standing.

Which is why you need to show you understand and show you care. Accepting reality – these voters are here and will not be leaving – is the first step but no journey is completed in a single step. You need to demonstrate that they are welcome, that you like them and, most importantly, that you value them and their contributions to society. That you are relaxed, even intensely relaxed, about diversity. Then you have standing to talk about other issues.

Short-term expediency, however, is always powerful. Maximising their white vote was a sensible strategy for Republicans in 2008, just as it is a short-term sticking-plaster for the Tories now. It can help you right now but, most probably, only at the cost (on current trends) of doing worse at the next election and the one after that.

This doesn’t mean you need to favour open borders. A GOP move to comprehensive immigration reform will not, in the short-term, transform their fortunes amongst Hispanic voters any more than a comparable approach (to the extent it exists) by the Tories would improve their chances with BME voters immediately. They would still have to overcome the perception they are the party for rich people. (And, of course, Ronald Reagan’s immigration amnesty didn’t help the GOP very much either. It’s not a one-policy-will-solve-everything issue.)

It’s not as simple as supposing that, hey, if we fix the immigration thing then happy days lie ahead but unless you fix the perception that your party isn’t interested in – or is in fact suspicious of – ethnic minority voters then you don’t have a chance at all. Anything – anything at all – that hints they’re a problem or unwelcome or in some sense lesser citizens will prove poisonous.

Policy matters, of course, but so does the language and tone you use. Perceptions come first. George W Bush had a better understanding of this than some of his GOP colleagues and he did do better amongst Hispanic voters than have other GOP candidates.

But Tories looking for lessons from America should consider what came after Bush just as much as they ponder his example. An example that, if exaggerated, remains useful. BME voters are no more monolithic than Hispanic voters in the US (there being a considerable difference, say, between Mexican-Americans in Arizona and Cuban-Americans in Florida) but one single truth remains apparent: BME voters don’t think the Tory party is for people like them and they have not been persuaded that the Conservatives are on their side.

Unless that changes, voting patterns will remain broadly the same and the Tory share of the BME vote will continue to languish far below their share of the overall national vote. And that will continue to cost them otherwise winnable seats for another generation.


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