David Cameron takes part in a ceremony at the Hindu temple Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in London, during Diwali, on November 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' minorities push has come too late to help them in 2015

Transforming the right's standing among ethnic groups requires a longer march than is available in the final year of this Parliament. 

Britain's growing ethnic diversity is not news, but the scale of grappling with the new realities of multi-ethnic Britain on the political right is certainly eye-catching. 

Just this past week, the Bright Blue manifesto saw ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman challenge his party to make a stronger offer to ethnic minorities; Lord Ashcroft has followed up his earlier major study by calling for the Conservatives to adopt a 10 to 20 year outreach strategy. Now, Policy Exchange has upped the ante with its very own "BME research unit", its opening contribution is its Portrait of Modern Britain, an impressively accessible guide combining much of the existing data about multi-ethnic Britain.

Why so much Tory love-bombing of black, brown and beige Britain? Largely for that most sincere of political motives: electoral self-interest. The ethnic voting gap cost David Cameron an overall majority in 2010 - and at least 24 gains from Labour in crucial marginals. This will only matter more. An ever-increasing share of new voters will come from Britain's expanding minority population: one in five of those who turn 18 during this Parliament aren't white.

The central message of the Policy Exchange report is that the ethnic minorities can't all be lumped together as a single group. "Has it really taken us until 2014 to realise that" asked David Lammy at Tuesday night's launch. Lammy worries that all of the parties too often still sound as if they think that ethnic minority Britons have all just stepped off the boat.

The picture did long ago cease to be a simple one of white advantage versus non-white disadvantage. Third or fourth generation black Britons and recent Somali migrants may be on quite different trajectories. Yet several broader generalisations remain valid too. Britain's ethnic minorities, generally, are younger, more urban (though slowly more suburban), more religious, more likely to be graduates, yet more likely to be unemployed too. Citizens from minority backgrounds have the strongest sense of being British - and, across every minority group, are much less likely to vote Tory.

There are nuances within these broad brush-strokes: the Conservatives won around one in six (16 per cent) non-white votes overall last time, but only 9 per cent of Afro-Caribbeans, and one in four (24 per cent) British Indians. But that is hardly a more impressive score, once you realise that Indian Brits have pretty much converged completely, in socio-economic terms on the white British average, indeed moving slightly ahead. So the voting gap here - with Labour 37 points ahead among British Indians, on 61 per cent even in 2010, almost entirely reflects the hangover from a toxic Tory past image.

An analysis focused on different ethnic community groups has its limits too.  It would be difficult to talk coherently about a "white British" experience of our country in 2014: graduates and non-graduates, the youngest and the oldest see their country very differently, as the marmite phenomenon of Ukip demonstrates. Such divergent experiences by age, class and education will increasingly apply within most minority communities too. If anything, the speed of shifts in outlook, between first generation migrants and their British-born, British-educated grandchildren may well be greater.

Though Jessica Ennis is celebrated in Policy Exchange’s cover blurb, hers, now the largest ethnic minority group features only briefly in the report, because mixed race Britons aren’t really a ‘group’ at all. Ennis was declared "the face of the census" as the number of mixed race Britons doubled in a decade. Over two million Brits today are of mixed ethnic heritage, though around half tick other census boxes. While the report presents the data for the five largest "distinct ethnic communities", Britain's long-term racial demographics have a stronger "melting pot" dynamic than in the United States, where three-quarters of those of mixed ethnicity marry somebody from another minority background. By contrast, three-quarters of marriages involving mixed race Britons are to somebody white.

Newspaper headlines declared that a third of Britons will be "ethnic minorities" three decades from now, but who really knows what the term will even mean in 2050? Should we really have expected Lord Scarman, assessing the Brixton riots in 1981, to have envisioned our Olympic summer of 2012? Those "ethnic minority" Brits of 2030 will include many more people like Jessica Ennis (or, indeed, her new baby), Ryan Giggs and Seb Coe, or my own children, for whom ethnic identity may well become as much a matter of choice, not ascription.

Ethnic groups which retain low rates of intermarriage will remain more distinct; others, like the Caribbean category, are fast-disappearing as a distinct group. So the group categories should come under increasing pressure from the lived reality of contact and integration. Faith is often already a more important badge of "community" allegiance than ethnicity, as it has long been for Britain’s Jewish community, the classic "model minority", who helped later groups, such as the Ugandan Asians, to find their voice and place too. Whether we are "majority", "minority" or somewhere in between, strengthening common and inclusive "in group identities" that we all share - such as a civic Englishness as well as Britishness - will usually be the best focus of public and political energy. 

In contrast to the energy on the right, the centre-left is eerily quiet. Its think-tanks don't talk much about race anymore. Dangerous complacency? Perhaps. The Canadian picture changed pretty quickly. It would be good for Britain, and for racial integration too, were the right to succeed in creating a proper contest for all of the votes in our multi-ethnic society. Non-white Britons are ill-served as citizens if one party thinks they are out of reach and the other that they are in the bag.

Firstly, Ukip. The think-tankers and party strategists see minority outreach as an existential challenge. On the backbenches and in the constituency associations, the Ukip revolt is top of mind. In a country that is 14 per cent ethnic minority, the Ukip vote is 99.4 per cent white, according to the authoritative recent study by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, and certainly doesn’t see Britain rising diversity as confidently as the Policy Exchange report. How many MPs and candidates are talking about the need to win more non-white votes in the week after the European Elections? Paul Goodman’s Bright Blue essay sets an essential "golden rule": "any pitch for ethnic minority votes must be in the interests of the country as a whole". Any offer to the Ukip minority should be held to a similar standard too.

The Ukip vote is much older too. The Conservatives have been the party of older Britons. That will never be the case with ethnic minority Britons, where the Labour allegiances of the first generation. They need to bring the votes of younger non-white Britons into play. The next generation do have much lower levels of partisan allegiance – and would expect to be able to shop around with their votes. Though more highly educated, they have lower levels of political trust than their elders – integrating into the more apathetic British norm – and their confidence in being British makes them more demanding if they believe they are discriminated against. Theresa May’s push to move faster on stop and search could therefore by of both practical and symbolic importance. Yet age, as much as ethnicity, could be a barrier, if the Tory pitch seemed to prioritise those high turnout pensioners.

Secondly, talk has not yet turned into much action, nor yet a clear strategy, beyond the mantra of there being "no quick fixes". Several core questions remain unresolved. Could an account of the past - even an "apology" - break the ice, or would it just stir up old ghosts, even with voters who may never have heard of Enoch? Should the party select and target specific groups - Hindus and Sikhs, rather than Muslims; affluent Africans, but not Afro-Caribbeans - with whom it has most chance of progress, or would being spotted doing this risk exacerbating mistrust of the party's motives?

Thirdly, perhaps the most important question: is it now too late for 2015? The message discipline which Lynton Crosby wants to impose on the Conservative campaign may cut across efforts to reach out to minority voters.

The Conservatives have chosen an guru with an impressive electoral record. He certainly knew how to win the Australian election of 2001. But it will be another year before we know whether Crosby had the wrong play-book to appeal to the changing face of the Britain of 2015.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear