Conservative Party conference in 2008. Very white. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Does the Tory party understand non-white people?

The real reasons why so many black and Asian people refuse to vote Conservative.

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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder