Why the Tories are still failing to attract ethnic minority voters

The party acts as if racial discrimination is no longer a problem for BME communities.

It is well-known that the Conservative Party has to work a little harder than its rivals when attempting to attract voters from certain parts of the UK population. With an unreformed boundary system meaning that the Tories also need to attract more votes than Labour to win a parliamentary majority, it would be wholly inappropriate and unwise for the party to ignore Britain's growing ethnic minority communities.

This challenge is historical, with its origins dating back to the period following the arrival of the Empire Windrush. The party chose to adopt an aggressive approach to dealing with new migrants who arrived to help rebuild post-war Britain. Back then, anyone with noticeably dark skin was classified as either a "New Commonwealth Migrant" or simply as "coloured". Labour would go on to become the party of choice for black and Asian Britons and would benefit from a monopoly of votes from ethnic minority groups for generations.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, would suffer by being the party that was in government during major riots in two generations. Parents like my own would remember how they were treated during Thatcher's premiership and instinctively support Labour as a result. So history would demonstrate an element of fairness when asking why the Tories attracted just 16% of the BME vote at the last election. But the present state of play offers an opportunity to do much better. Under the last Labour government, the gap between the rich and the poor widened, crime significantly increased within inner city areas, and black youth unemployment rose to 50%. Labour has lost its status as the only party for ethnic minority communities, and the Bradford West by-election was a clear indication that voters are looking for something different.

In my new book Winning the Race, I talk about how I joined the Conservative Party aged 20 during my time as vice president of the Union of Brunel Students. This was my own attempt to find a new type of politics and an alternative to Labour. Yet we as a party have continued to ignore the fact that racial inequality is still an obstacle faced by many people in the UK. Instead, we speak as if ideals are realities when it comes to racial discrimination. Yesterday we celebrated the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. He presented an ideal but never stopped dealing with the issues of the present. Inequalities still existed then, and still exist today.

Politicians in the UK have failed to effectively engage ethnic minority communities, but the future will belong to the party that succeeds in doing so. There is a genuine desire among the Conservatives to make progress in this area, and the fact that we went from having just two ethnic minority MPs to having 11 is a sign of progress under David Cameron. As a Conservative, it is my hope that there is a centre-right alternative when it comes to tackling inequalities. But, for now, that remains to be seen.

Samuel Kasumu is the founder of social enterprise Elevation Networks and the author of Winning the Race.

David Cameron takes a photo with Olympic volunteer Anita Akuwudike on her Blackberry phone. Photograph: Getty Images.

Samuel Kasumu is the the founder of social enterprise Elevation Networks and the author of Winning the Race.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.