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What does the Conservative Party offer ethnic minorities?

5 May 2014

12:15 PM

5 May 2014

12:15 PM

It was the ethnic minority vote that swung it for David Cameron. Had it voted in line with expert pre-election predictions – which foolishly forecast that the Conservatives would scrape a mere 16 per cent of Britain’s non-white English voters – a hung Parliament would have resulted, and he might have been condemned to a fractious coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Instead, marginal seats tumbled into the Tory column: Chris Philp in Hampstead and Kilburn won by a whopping 10,034; Mark Clarke in Tooting by 5,421 (thus unseating Sadiq Khan, that rising Labour star); even Nigel Dawkins in Birmingham Selly Oak scraped home by 599 votes – re-taking a seat for the Conservatives that they last won in 1987, the best part of 25 years before. “This election has proved that the Conservatives are a party for the whole country,” an exultant David Cameron proclaimed on the steps of Downing Street, framed in the bright light of the mid-day sun. The Tories made it over the winning line by 12 seats.

The reality for Conservatives

Readers will take the point of this fantasy. In reality, the Conservatives did gain only 16 per of that ethnic minority vote, and Cameron was indeed consigned to coalition. A powerful combination of the distribution of the vote as a whole and the propensity of ethnic minority members to vote Labour now threatens to make the Tories the natural party of Opposition – in a mirror image to the recent fate of the Republicans in American Presidential elections, four out of six of which have been won by the Democrats. The compellingly exact figures above, which mock the Prime Minister with what might have been, come courtesy of a study by British Future, which projected what would have happened had ethnic minority members voted in the same way as their non-ethnic minority counterparts. Bradford East, Derby North, Dudley North, Halifax, Nottingham South, Walsall South, Wolverhampton North-East: with a decent share of the ethnic minority vote, some of the Midlands and northern seats that Cameron needs to win to form a majority next time round would already be tucked up in the Conservative column.

So what is driving this phenomenon that cost Cameron victory in 2010, and threatens the Conservatives’ future as a One Nation party? What is Number 10 and Conservative Campaign Headquarters doing about it, and what more could be done? Finding the right answers means avoiding some dangerous misconceptions. All ethnic minority voters may have a very few features in common (such as a greater reluctance than other people to vote Conservative), but it would be ignorant, patronising and inaccurate to treat them a single undifferentiated electoral lump. The 16 per cent figure quoted above – that is the proportion of ethnic minority voters that supported the Tories last time round – is from a Runnymede Trust analysis of the last election, but it conceals quite a bit of variation. Among African-origin voters, the Conservative total fell as low as six per cent; among Indian-origin ones, it climbed as high as 24 per cent (among white voters, it was 37 per cent).

The causes

At a glance, we might therefore assume that income is everything – that, since Indian-origin voters are on the whole better off than African-origin ones, the voting habits of ethnic minority voters will come into line with those of non-ethnic minority ones if their living standards rise. However, as Lord Ashcroft has written: “the Conservative Party’s unpopularity among black and Asian voters is not simply a matter of class and geography. There were sometimes strikingly different results between white and non-white voters living in the same area, and between different ethnic minority groups. Among ethnic minority voters the Conservatives’ brand problem exists in a more intense form. For many of our participants – by no means all, it is important to state – there was an extra barrier between them and the Conservative Party directly related to their ethnic background.”

Those words come from ‘Degrees of Separation’, Ashcroft’s report into ethnic minorities and the Conservatives. It was, in his words, “the biggest such survey ever conducted in Britain”, and its findings overlap substantially with those of David Sanders’s for the Economic and Social Research Council. Ethnic minority respondents to the Ashcroft polling and focus groups cited the Smethwick campaign of 1964, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and the Stephen Lawrence case as reasons for shunning the Tories. That the notorious Smethwick leaflets weren’t distributed by the Conservatives, that Powell didn’t actually say “rivers of blood”, and that John Major’s Government wasn’t involved in the Lawrence case is beside the point. To many ethnic minority voters, Labour is the party that welcomed immigrants, that passed the Race Relations Act and which instigated the Macpherson report into the Lawrence murder.

In short, David Cameron’s party has the electoral equivalent of body odour as far as a significant proportion of ethnic minority members are concerned. A photo montage of words from focus groups, imposed on the Tory tree in ‘Degrees of Separation’, makes depressing reading for Conservatives: “For the Rich. Rubbish. Selfish. Upper Class. Unfair,” shriek the responses (together with the occasional neutral word, such as “Business” and, both prominently and unexpectedly, the word “Good”).

Number Ten’s response has been to start in the right place: by grasping that this lost ground can’t be made up by a quick sprint, but will require a long-distance run – in other words, by local Conservatives working patiently alongside ethnic minority voters and communities for the common good. For only by being there can they make the obvious point: that Tory values are also those of a large number of ethnic minority voters, and that most Tory people simply want to make their country and communities better.

Canadian Conservatives

Downing Street and CCHQ didn’t simply work all this out for themselves, though both have invested time and trouble over polling and research in Government that was lacking in opposition. Rather, they have looked long and hard at the experience of the Canadian Conservatives, who won over two in five of the country’s ethnic minority voters in its 2011 election. The latter argue that it was the previous Liberal Government’s decision to support same-sex marriage – which split the tripartite coalition of Catholics, socially conservative immigrants and liberal progressives which upheld it – that allowed the Conservatives to get a foot in the ethnic minority door. But whatever the reasons may have been, Stephen Harper’s party made the most of its opportunity. The party’s outreach to ethnic minority voters was led by the indefatigable Jason Kenney, now Canada’s Minister of Employment, Social Development and, crucially, Multiculturalism.

Harper regularly goes round the Cabinet table to ask what community events his Ministers have attended over the weekend, such is the importance that he places on keeping the votes that the Conservatives have won – and improving further. Cameron has taken to following in Harper’s footsteps in his own political Cabinet, though less regularly. And for better or worse, his Government lacks the larger number of special advisers that Harper’s uses to buttress policy work on issues of special interest to ethnic minority voters.

Building bridges

This takes us to three policy areas which the Conservatives might address in order to speed up that long march among their British equivalents.

First, the Conservatives must address micro-issues that have particular play with ethnic minority voters. In this context, some work has been done but there is a lot more to do. Mixed-sex wards have gone (though their removal has been under-publicised). Hard-hat exemptions for Sikhs have followed earlier ones for motor cycle helmets – eventually, and rather late.

The timing of that last announcement was poor. It was made in the aftermath of revelations about the Thatcher Government’s alleged involvement in Operation Bluestar, the Indian Army’s operation to flush out militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. Any move to, for example, speed up inquests in some cases (swift burial is a feature of Islamic belief) or curb stop and search (as many black and ethnic minority voters want) or admit more students from India who will contribute to economic growth and the tax take will need to be better timed.

Stop and Search is a practice that is ripe for reform. There is every reason to retain it. As Theresa May told the Commons last year, it has resulted in 45,000 criminals being arrested in London, for example. But as she went on to point out, the capital provides a good example of how it can be reworked. The complaint is that fewer than one in ten stop and searches result in an arrest – nine per cent, to be more precise. And the figures show that if someone is from a black or minority ethnic background, they are up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than if they are white.

The Met has succeeded in reducing the number of stop and searches while increasing the arrest rate: the former has fallen from 500,000 to 350,000, while the the latter has risen from eight per cent to 18 per cent. This happened after guidance for stop and search was changed and a target set for 20 per cent of stop and searches in London to result in an arrest or drugs warning. The Met is clearly targeting the people who should be arrested, thus using their time more efficiently and improving confidence in stop and search. There is a clear case for other forces following the Met’s example and setting their own target, as Theresa May appears to want them to do – though there is resistance to the proposal in Downing Street.

The golden rule should always be that any policy with ethnic minority appeal must also be in the interest of voters as a whole – a consideration that applies to Alok Sharma’s call for listed companies to disclose publicly their ethnic balance. With such MPs as Gavin Barwell, Kris Hopkins, Priti Patel and Paul Uppal, Sharma – a Party Vice-Chairmen – is leading the push to engage with ethnic minority voters in a more purposeful way. Mrs May, Chris Grayling and Eric Pickles have been among the Cabinet members most frequently deployed to help.

This leads directly to the second way in which efforts to engage with ethnic minority voters should be consolidated. New groups, such as Conservative Friends of Pakistan, have come into being since 2010. The danger is that they will fall victim, like some previous initiatives, to the urgency of the electoral cycle. The pattern is wearisomely familiar. Elections are won and lost. New Party Chairmen come and go. So do staff with their expertise, contacts, relationships and institutional memory. Money raised is fiercely targeted on marginal seats. This is fine for each short-term cycle, but destructive in the long run. CCHQ needs a community affairs department with ring-fenced fundraising – one that is backed from the top and is there for the long-term. Finally, Cameron needs to end the long Tory war against multiculturalism – a way of life that polling shows most Conservative voters support, though by multi-culturalism they mean the multi-racial society, rather than some multi-cultural practices.

For Cameron, this would not mean repudiating his Munich speech on extremism, most of the content of which was excellent, so much as standing it on its head. Instead of Tories being against multiculturalism, we should be for integration – and everything that the idea suggests, such as those who enter the country having a basic grasp of English and Britain’s history, values, institutions and culture. Indeed, being for things rather than against them is indispensable to quickening progress in the long, arduous and slow journey towards being more like the country we seek to govern.

Paul Goodman is the Editor of ConservativeHome and was Conservative MP for Wycombe, 2001-2010.

This essay is taken from The Modernisers’ Manifesto, which is published by the think-tank Bright Blue.

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