The last Conservative election winner. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ethnic minorities mean that John Major would not win today

The emphatic rejection of Toryism in London shows that much of modern Britain – even if it holds centre-right views – is not comfortable with the Conservative Party.

John Major was the Conservative Party’s last general election winner, but he wouldn’t be triumphant today. "Major would have failed to win the ‘92 election if it was re-run with the British electorate as it looks today," said a report by British Future last year. It explained that the "ethnic gap" in voting would have cost the Tories at least 22 seats, denying them an outright majority in the House of Commons.

This is the context in which to view John Major’s latest intervention, praising the "guts and drive" of immigrants to Britain, many of whom had a "very Conservative instinct" to work in pursuit of a better life. While Major was speaking on Reflections on BBC Radio Four, it seems implausible that he was oblivious to the current political reality that the Conservatives face. In 2010, they lost the ethnic minority vote by 52 per cent to Labour. As the ethnic minority vote rises and groups like Operation Black Vote work to reduce the historic turnout gap between ethnic minorities and the rest of the population, this is not a problem that the Conservatives can afford to ignore.

All of which makes the actions of the government particularly baffling. Endless tub-thumping on immigration. The notorious "Go Home" vans. The failure of David Cameron to make the big "race speech" that some modernising Tories were calling for. His determination to water down Theresa May’s stop-and-search reforms. Complaints from Cameron’s only black adviser, Shaun Bailey, that he was "frozen out". It does not add up to a compelling out reach programme to the 84 per cent of ethnic minorities who did not back the Tories in 2010.

The ethnic minority vote is one area in which differentiation has worked out particularly badly for the Conservatives. In claiming that the limitations of coalition have prevented them from implementing an authentically blue agenda on immigration, the Tories risk reinforcing their image as the "nasty party". Particularly draconian immigration laws, like the brief experiment with the "Go Home" vans, have come to be identified as exclusively Tory in origin. This may have pleased many Conservative MPs and voters in 2010. In isolation, the policies are popular, too.

But of course, they are not viewed in isolation, but rather in the context of the Tory Party’s historic difficulties with ethnic minorities. To many ethnic minorities, the Tories haven’t earned the right to be heard, even if many of their policies, as Major notes, may appeal to them. Mood music matters in politics – just as popular Labour spending policies may be popular in isolation but too many risk reinforcing the worst image of the party, so the cumulative effect of the Tory emphasis on curbing immigration is to suggest a party not completely at ease with the changing face of modern Britain. And, as the emphatic rejection of Toryism in London is showing, much of modern Britain – even if it holds centre-right views – is not comfortable with the Conservative Party.

All of which makes one new campaign particularly significant for the future of the Conservatives in 2015 and beyond. Bright Blue, a self-described "liberal conservative" pressure group, recently launched a new project which, as director Ryan Shorthouse explains, aims "to develop a balanced centre-right agenda on immigration". Shorthouse says: "All political parties are now guilty of pandering to UKIP's negative and divisive agenda on immigration. For the Conservative Party in particular, the strategy at the moment seems to be all about cap and clampdown, giving the impression of an immigration system which is out of control and rife with abuse. This narrow and negative messaging will only help UKIP in the long-term." Instead he advocates "reassuring voters that the system is now being properly managed and is fair", saying that “competence and contribution should lie at the heart of a conservative immigration system.”

Whether such voices are heard will go a long way towards determining the electoral prospects of the Tories in 2015 and beyond. Electoral necessity should be an emphatic motivation for the party, but, as the experience of the Republican Party shows, it is less simple than that. Just as most Republicans in Congress represent areas that lag beyond the wider democratic changes in the country, so the same is true for Conservative MPs. Perhaps the Conservative Party’s inertia attracting ethnic minorities shouldn’t be so surprising: after all just 3 per cent of David Cameron’s constituents are from ethnic minorities.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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After the leadership battle, immigration is Labour's new dividing line

Some MPs are making a progressive case for freedom of movement controls. 

After three brutal months of infighting, culminating in another sweeping victory for Jeremy Corbyn, the buzzword at the Labour party conference is unity. But while Corbyn’s opponents may have resigned themselves at least temporarily to their leader, a new fissure is opening up.

Considering it was sparked by Brexit, the Labour leadership contest included surprisingly little debate about freedom of movement. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, Corbyn declared he was “not afraid to talk about immigration”.  Owen Smith, his rival, referred to the “progressive case against freedom of movement”. But ultimately, the contest embodied a clash between the will of the membership and the parliamentary Labour party. 

Now, though, the question can no longer be dodged. What position should Labour take on freedom of movement? And is it time for a fundamental shift on immigration?

Labour’s 2015 pledge to “control immigration” was widely derided by its own party activists – not least when it appeared on a gift shop mug. Apart from making a rather authoritarian present, one of the flaws in this promise was, at the time, that the only way of really controlling immigration would be to leave the EU. 

But an increasingly vocal group of MPs are arguing that everything has changed. Heavyweights from the Miliband era are now, from the back benches, trying to define limits to freedom of movement and immigration. Chief among them are Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna. 

Reeves makes her case from an economic perspective. She argues that freedom of movement from the EU has depressed wages (the cause and effect is disputed). At a Resolution Foundation event during Labour conference, she recalled visiting a factory in her constituency where workers complained the jobs went to foreigners. 

Umunna, on the other hand, argues unease with immigration has a cultural element as well. He has said that immigrants need to stop leading “parallel lives”. At the Resolution event, he declared of Brexit: “This isn’t all about economic equality – it is about identity politics.” Umunna's tough talk on integration may coincide with his bid to chair the Home Office select committee, but his observations about the underlying distrust of immigrants rings true. 

How Labour copes with freedom of movement depends on which view prevails. It is possible to imagine the party coming up with an answer to the freedom of movement question that involves Corbynite economic themes, such as protecting wages, labour rights and restrictions on agency recruitment. Lisa Nandy, another speaker at the Resolution event, rallied the audience with a story of workers on low wages standing “in solidarity side by side” with migrant workers. It would be a distinctly left-wing argument that critiques the Government’s tolerance of zero-hours contracts and other precarious employment practices. 

But if, as Umunna suggests, Brexit is also an articulation of a deeper anti-immigrant feeling, Labour is entering more dangerous territory. On a tactical level, it is hard to see how the party can beat the May Government when it comes to social conservatism. It undermines any attempt to broker a "soft Brexit", which many of Labour's members, who voted Remain, will want. 

And then there's the prospect of the party most closely associated with ethnic minorities condoning xenophobia. Labour activists point out that some of the Brexit backlash is plain old racism. Speaking at a Momentum rally during the leadership contest, Diane Abbott, the shadow health secretary and one of Corbyn’s closest allies, declared: "Anyone who tells you maybe you have to do something about these Eastern Europeans, it's not about skin colour, what we've seen since the Brexit vote gives lie to that. 

“If you give ground to anti-immigrant politics, it will sweep away all of us. And we cannot give ground to that stuff. You cannot as a Labour movement take a position that one part of the working class is a problem of another section of the working class."

More pragmatic MPs too, still remember the ill-fated immigration mug. They see the new “tough on immigration” line as an uneasy alliance between working-class MPs on the Labour right, and a group of middle-class metropolitans who have spotted a gap in the market and jumped on it. Should this second attempt, Labour MPs will have achieved nothing except alienating their activist base. 

Ultimately, the initiative lies with Corbyn. If he can set out a radical agenda for protecting workers’ rights, he may be able to bring the party with him. But if this fails to shift opinion polls, immigration could be the next issue to disunite the party.