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.

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Keep the Burkini, ban the beach

Beaches are dreadful places. Maybe it would just be easier to ban them.

To hell with political correctness, I'm just going to say it. I think women who wear burkinis to the beach are silly. I also, for that matter, think women who wear bikinis to the beach are silly. Not because of what they're wearing – women, quite obviously, should be able to wear whatever the hell they want without interference from eyebrow-furrowing douchecanoes and neighborhood bigots whose opinions are neither relevant nor requested. No, my problem is with the beach. 

Beaches are dreadful places. I question the judgement of anyone who chooses to go, of their own free will, to a strip of boiling sand that gets in all your squishy bits, just to lie down. I associate beaches with skin cancer and sunstroke and stickiness and sharks. As a neurotic, anxious goth who struggles with the entire concept of organised fun, even the idea of the beach distresses me. I won't go and you can't make me. Especially given that if I did go, whatever I chose to wear, some fragile man somewhere whose entire identity depends on controlling how the women around him behave would probably get outraged and frightened and try to ban me.

Men love to have opinions on what women should wear on their holidays. Nipples are not to be tolerated, and burkinis are now an invitation to Islamophobia, so I can only imagine how my grumpy summer goth robes would go down. The annual summer storm over women's beach attire has a xenophobic twist this year after burkinis – the swimsuit alternative for women who want to conform to a “modest” Islamic dress code – were banned on many beaches in France (although one specific one, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, has been overturned by a test ruling in the country’s highest court).

Not to be outdone, Nicholas Sarkozy has promised to institute nationwide legislation against the “provocative” garment if he's re-elected as president, jumping gleefully on the bandwagon brought to global attention by race riots in Corsica. Photos have emerged of Nice police officers apparently forcing a sunbathing Muslim woman to strip down and issuing her with a penalty slip. I can only imagine what that poor woman must have felt as the state swooped down on her swimsuit, but hey, Sarkozy says that public humiliation of Muslim women is a vital part of French values, and women's symbolic experience is always more important than our actual, lived experience. There are many words for this sort of bullying, but Liberty does not come into it, and nor does Equality. Fraternity, of course, is doing just fine.

Whatever women wear, it's always provocative to someone, and it's always our fault – particularly if we're also seen to be shamelessly enjoying ourselves without prior permission from the patriarchy and the state. If we wear too little, that's a provocation, and we deserve to be raped or assaulted. If we wear too much, that's a provocation, and we deserve racist abuse and police harassment. If we walk too tall, speak to loud or venture down the wrong street at night, whatever we're wearing, that's a provocation and we deserve whatever we get. The point of all this is control – the policing of women's bodies in public, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. It's never about women's choices – it's about how women's choices make men feel, and men's feelings are routinely placed before women's freedom, even the simple freedom to wear things that make us feel comfortable as we queue up for overpriced ice cream. It's not about banning the Burkinis, or banning the bikini. It's about stopping women from occupying public space, curtailing our freedom of expression, and letting us know that whoever we are, we are always watched, and we can never win.

If you ask me, the simplest thing would just be to ban the beach. I consider people on the beach a personal provocation. Yes, I grew up in a seaside town, but some of the beach people come from far away, and they aren't like me, and therefore I fear them. The very sight of them, laying around all damp and happy, is an active identity threat to me as an angry goth, and that means it must be personal. As far as I'm concerned the beach is for smoking joints in the dark in winter, snogging under the pier and swigging cheap cider from the two-litre bottle you've hidden up your jumper. That's all the beach is good for. Ban it, I say. 

I do, however, accept – albeit grudgingly – that other people have different experiences. Some people actually like the seaside. And given that I am neither a screaming overgrown toddler with affectless political ambitions nor a brittle, bellowing xenophobe convinced that anything that makes me uncomfortable ought to be illegal, I have learned to tolerate beach people. I may never understand them. That's ok. The beach isn't for me. Not everything has to be for me. That's what it means to live in a community with other human beings. As performative Islamophobia and popular misogyny bake on the blasted sand-flats of public discourse, more and and more conservatives are failing to get that memo. I'd suggest they calm down with an ice lolly and a go on the Ferris wheel – but maybe it'd be easier just to ban them. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.