David Cameron made the welcome point this week that black and minority ethnic (BME) communities must be given greater respect if the Conservative party intends to win the next general election. Pointing to research showing that only 16 per cent of BME voters support the Conservatives while two thirds voted Labour, he deserves a great deal of credit given the vitriol that calls for BME representation receive from within the party’s right wing. When Sayeeda Warsi was appointed as Conservative Party chairman, a cynical response followed from the influential Tory website ConservativeHome, where Nile Gardiner commented that appointing someone with her views was “the wrong signal at a time when Britain is fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism and extremism”.
Within the parliamentary party, modernising voices are calling for change. Conservative Party Vice Chairman, Alok Sharma, is responsible for developing the strategy to encourage greater BME participation. He recently blogged the case for listed companies to reveal how many employees come from BME backgrounds and to state numbers represented on boards or at senior level. Croydon Central MP, Gavin Barwell, has also come out in support of Cameron’s plea to the party and said the party “faces an existential threat if it does not increase support among voters from minority communities.”
But before anyone begins to think that with all this support coming from the leadership, BME communities have “never had it so good” it may be worth looking again at the remedies being proposed and being honest about the real reasons why so many black and Asian people refuse to vote Conservative.
The Independent newspaper reported that MPs are being urged to ramp up their ethnic minority PR to win favour. Instructions to get more coverage in ethnic-minority press, attend key events, and hit TV and radio stations with BME friendly messages are the order of the day. As noble an idea as this might first appear, other rather more substantive factors need “fessing up” to head on.
Research by Tory peer and pollster, Lord Ashcroft, shows that Bangladeshi and Black African respondents were the most likely to say Labour “shares my values” (74 per cent and 81 per cent). Only 16 per cent of Black Caribbean respondents said the Conservative Party “shares my values”. At the same time, the research concludes for British Muslims voters, there is a “perception that the Conservative Party does not stand for fairness, is actively hostile to people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and that its policies have shown this to be the case, were the strongest factors for Muslims who say they would never vote Tory.”
I can understand how views like this are incubated. As a recent – now former – conservative local councillor at Reigate and Banstead Borough Council in Surrey, I asked for a break between the Christian vicar-led prayers and the beginning of council meetings. Sadly, I was not too shocked on receiving an email from an executive member of council - copied to the rest of the Conservative group – which read: “As far as I am concerned the most basic gift we can offer the minorities is the one we all enjoy and that is freedom. Freedom to not attend, walk away, or go somewhere else if you don't like the way we live.” This view was shared unanimously by the other Conservative members. On my part, I was keen to serve another term, but the local party was not quite so keen.
Similarly, when the first ever black MP was selected to serve my constituency, East Surrey, an emergency general meeting had to be called soon afterwards as party members refused to deliver leaflets because they were “unhappy” about the result. No doubt, many of the few BME Tory activists will also have their own stories to tell. Although I could cite numerous other incidents, I remain a Conservative party supporter. Perhaps real change is possible for the next generation of Tories taking up office?
But without real change on the ground – in constituencies and local conservative groups - PR campaigns are likely to be interpreted as “spin”. Lazy thinking such as the idea that black and Asian people mainly live in Labour seats is something that needs to be challenged within the party at every level. As Mehdi Hasan notes: “In 14 of the top 50 seats where the Tories narrowly came second to Labour in 2010, non-white voters made up more than 10 per cent of the population.”
Some Tories are even arguing that BME communities are over-represented in lower socio-economic groups and so more likely to vote labour. I doubt that past leaders, Margaret Thatcher and John Major would subscribe to this view, nor most likely would much of the white working class – another important part of the community Tories need to win the next election. Without change, I can easily imagine a world where the Tory party follows the Republicans’ trajectory to irrelevance amongst black and Asian people. Just as the GOP reached out to their right-wing in the misguided belief that getting their vote out would make up for lost BME votes, the Tory party runs a real risk of pandering to the vocal neo-conservative and right wing at home.
More effort in reaching out to BME communities will undoubtedly help, especially in the 14 marginal constituencies such as Birmingham Edgbaston, Tooting, and Luton South. However, the party needs to challenge itself on the question of what values it shares with BME voters? Being told to “go home” if we don’t like how things are being done is not a strategy that resonated well with me. I doubt it is likely to work too well on the electorate in Birmingham, or at my home, Surrey.
Update, 29 December 19.50: This piece originally attributed remarks about the appointment of Sayeeda Warsi to Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home. They were in fact made by CH contributor Nile Gardiner. This has been corrected.