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.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage