The lack of support for the Conservatives among ethnic minorities is rightly recognised by party strategists as one of the biggest obstacles to a Tory majority. In 2010, just 16 per cent of BME voters supported the party compared to 68 per cent for Labour and 14 per cent for the Lib Dems. As Lord Ashcroft noted in his study on the subject, "not being white was the single best predictor that somebody would not vote Conservative". Unless this trend is reversed, the problem will grow worse with time. The new study by Operation Black Vote reveals that there are now 168 marginal seats in which the ethnic minority vote is greater than the majority of the sitting MP and BME voters will account for one in five of the total number by 2050 (up from one in ten in 2001). As in the case of the Republicans, this long-term demographic trend threatens to consign the Conservatives to irrelevance.
Alive to this danger, Tory strategists briefed in January that David Cameron was so concerned at how the issue of race was damaging support for the party that he would address it "head-on with a speech in the next two months". Referring to the toxic legacy of Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, Sajid Javid, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is of Pakistani origin, said that it would require "the Prime Minister, someone of that standing", to say Powell "doesn’t represent what the Conservative Party is today in any way and to set out what the Conservative Party actually is when it comes to race relations, multiculturalism and so forth". The Daily Mail went on to report that Cameron had "already asked for ideas for a speech to combat the idea that the spirit of Powell is alive in the modern Tory Party and is seeking ideas for policies which will dramatise the common values between Conservatives and non-white voters."
But seven months on, we've heard nothing from Cameron. Instead, the party has further damaged its reputation with ethnic minorities through a series of demagogic stunts (most notably the "go home" vans) on immigration. The more astute Conservative MPs, however, continue to recognise the need for a detoxifying moment. In an essay for the new Tory group Renewal, Nadhim Zahawi, who has called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, wrote that "the problem isn’t primarily the Conservative policy platform. It’s far deeper than that, a gut feeling which says ‘these people aren’t on my side; they don’t have my best interests at heart.’ Partly this is a legacy issue. Though both were repudiated by the party, many non-white Britons have never forgotten Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ speech, nor the notorious slogan from the 1964 Smethwick election ‘if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour’. The handling of the Brixton riots, as well as the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, convinced many others we were indifferent at best, downright hostile at worst. Given this history, it’s not going to be easy for us to gain the trust of ethnic minority voters who have never considered voting Conservative before."
Indeed. But does Cameron, who, under the guidance of Lynton Crosby, has abandoned modernisation and retreated to the core territory of immigration, welfare and Europe, still have the imagination to respond?