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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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.