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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue