Why do the Tories have a problem with black and ethnic minority voters, daddy? It is, with all due respect to Isabel and Paul Goodman, the British political question that is easiest to answer. We all know the answer too, even those of us on the right. Race might not be the Conservative party’s original sin; it’s still a pretty high-ranking sin.
And, look, it’s not ancient history either. It’s not a Different times, different attitudes but, please, can we move on now? kind of thing. Nor did it die with Enoch either. (Poor old Enoch, so brilliant but a touch troubled too, don’t you think?) It remains a virus at the heart of the Conservative party and – rather importantly for an organisation that exists to govern – it is a virus that threatens the Conservative party’s chances of governing in the future.
Of course it’s silly to assume BME voters think alike or are even motivated by the same concerns. Nevertheless, when the Tories win just 16% of the BME vote you have to be blind and deaf (and likely dumb too) not to appreciate there’s a problem. And remember that 16% was under a leader elected to detoxify the Tory brand.
I know few people wish to re-open the Tory Modernising Wars but facts are facts: the party’s rehabilitation was never completed. It never went far enough. Too much of the old baggage remained. How do we know this? In large part because two parts of the country in which the result of Tory detoxification could most usefully be measured in 2010 were also two parts of the country in which the Tories performed poorly: Scotland and London.
There are, sure, different reasons explaining that poor performance but in London the party’s problem with minority voters almost certainly cost it seats.
It will do so in 2015 too. And in 2020. And 2025. And, I am afraid, in 2030 as well. Indeed, unless something dramatic changes the scale of the problem will get worse before it gets better.
To put it simply: as the BME population – and hence proportion of the electorate – increases the Tory party will have to win an ever greater share of the white vote just to maintain the present balance of power. Unless, that is, the party wins more votes from BME voters. The Tories would have won a majority in 2010 if their share of the BME vote matched their overall vote share; conversely, John Major would not have won a majority in 1992 if the electorate looked then as it does now.
How bad is the problem? Well, the Conservatives won as many BME votes across the whole of Britain as they did in Scotland (about 400,000). The party is actually as unpopular with BME voters as it is with Scots. Pondering that should help concentrate minds. At least you would hope so.
Of course the party leadership knows all this. Knows that the party must do more to appeal to BME voters. Knows, probably, that it takes more than selecting BME candidates and that saying hard-working and self-employed and religious BME voters should be natural Conservatives will not be enough. Knows that is patronising nonsense.
And even if that were true – and to some extent it could be – it lets the party off the hook too easily.
Why would a young Bangladeshi or Jamaican or Nigerian Briton look at the Tory party and wonder if it was really a party for the likes of him (or her)? Gee, I dunno. Perhaps it’s because the Tory party has been happy to suggest that Britain isn’t actually a place for the likes of him.
Sure, it’s not necessarily racist to support limits on immigration. But it is modestly unfortunate that all racists will agree with you on that front. Anyway, politics is not just about reason; emotion matters too.
You might reasonably conclude stricter limits on immigration are necessary. Some BME voters might well agree with that. At least in the abstract. But how does such a policy – and how you talk about it – play on the fabled doorstep? What message does it send?
A clear one, I’m afraid. People like you are a problem. We neither want nor can afford any more of you here. Nothing against you personally, of course, that’s just the way it is. No offence, like.
But offence will be taken. Every time a prominent Tory complains about pressure on public services our young British voter of Bangladeshi or Nigerian descent hears something else: He’s talking about my mum. Or my grand-dad. Every time a Tory politician or a tabloid newspaper complains about Britain being swamped or flooded by immigration he thinks: They mean me. And my friends. Who could blame him for wondering if the Tory party is the place for him?
This isn’t over, you know. It was only 2005. Less than a decade ago. And it was only in 2001 that William Hague warned that Britain might become a foreign land if it made the mistake of re-electing Tony Blair. (Cue racists: Hague was right!)
Are you thinking what we’re thinking? Nudge nudge. Wink wink. Know what I mean? Who could have predicted that Alf Garnett politics could damage the Tory’s reputation amongst BME voters? I mean, really. How you speak matters just as much as what you actually say. Language is important. Voters understand nuance. They can hear dog whistles too.
Which is to say that the Tories problems with BME voters are of their own making and, alas, entirely deserved.
In the end and when you get down to it the party faces a choice: it can choose the UKIP path, pitching for voters unhappy with much of what constitutes life in modern Britain (especially modern England) or it can begin the long, hard process of persuading BME voters that the Tory party is not what they think it is, not the party they grew up disliking, not the party for whom their parents would never vote.
It is a choice between tilting towards the future or the past. I know which seems the better, more viable, long-term bet.
But it is also the case, I am afraid, that short-term expediency might persuade Conservative to play for UKIP, not BME voters. We’ll address the ethnic problem after this election but let’s concentrate on winning this election first. We can squeeze some more and just enough juice from the disgruntled white vote.
Except it’s not just BME voters who are the problem. It’s their white friends too. Increasingly their white husbands and wives, too. Socially liberal voters who might agree with the Tories on any number of policies but are reluctant to vote for a party that seems – fairly or not – to have a problem with race and multiethnic Britain. The Tories need these metropolitan votes too. At least they need some of them.
Otherwise they risk becoming a party of the English shires and not much else. Which will not be enough. To be fair, the party leadership recognises the problem but fixing it is much harder than recognising it. Even so, the despised elites are much better than the rank and file.
It’s pretty simple. If you tell people they are a problem they’re not likely to vote for you. And since political preferences are often inherited, what you said to asian or black Britons a generation ago has an impact on what today’s 18 year old black and asian Britons think. Moreover, since voting habits are generally speaking formed young, a first-time BME voter who rejected the Tories in 2010 is more likely than not going to reject them in future elections too. Most of the time, anyway.
In other words: the 2005 election campaign did tremendous damage to the Conservative party’s ambition to repeat its 20th century success in the 21st century. Demography isn’t destiny, for sure, but it’s a pretty good predictor nevertheless.