The last Conservative election winner. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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 Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.