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.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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