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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.

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.
The last Conservative election winner. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.