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Is the racial divide in voting preferences about to become more stark?

David Cameron's last project was to end the race divide among British voters. But can it last under May's government?

For ethnic minorities, voting in Britain has always been as easy as ABC: Anyone But the Conservatives. Even in years of Tory advance such as 1983 and 1987, the party has never outpolled Labour among any non-white group, regardless of age or income.

During the era of Thatcherite hegemony, that fact didn’t matter all that much. Ethnic minorities made up a very small proportion of the electorate and they were more concentrated in certain parts of the country, which made them less electorally influential. But there are now three million ethnic-­minority voters and they are increasingly dispersed around the country.

Labour’s historical dominance over the ethnic-minority vote was such that even in areas of increasing wealth, it remained competitive and in some places it was hegemonic. After the 2005 election the more optimistic members of the leadership dreamed of a future in which Britain’s changing ­demographics made Conservative victories not just rare, but impossible.

As Tory leader, David Cameron made it his personal project to defy that trajectory. To assist in the process, high-flying ethnic-minority candidates had their paths to selection eased – even those, like Kwasi Kwarteng, who had little time for Cameron’s flavour of Conservatism. The aim was to give a sense that the new-model Conservatives were a party for all Britons.

On the campaign trail in both 2010 and 2015, Cameron visited Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras, and became the first sitting Conservative prime minister to be interviewed by the Voice, Britain’s only national black newspaper. “I think lots of black Britons look at the values of the Conservative Party and think we agree with you about family and community . . .” he told its reporter Biz Pears. “The holdback has been people asking themselves if they can get up and get on with the Conservative Party, and you can see now that you can.” His home secretary, Theresa May, attacked the police for its overweening use of stop-and-search.

Although these front-of-house changes transformed the Conservative parliamentary party, they did less to transform the Tory vote. In 2010 the Conservatives secured 36.1 per cent of the vote across the country but underperformed that figure among ethnic minorities all the way up the income scale, contributing to the hung parliament. Even in 2015, the few disappointments for the triumphant Tories came in places where ethnic minorities were clustered: Ealing Central and Acton, Ilford North and Wolverhampton South-West. (As for Labour, the party became noticeably more reliant on ethnic-minority votes as some of its white voters moved to Ukip.) Cameron’s new approach did go some way towards lessening the Conservative Party’s ethnic penalty: the increased Tory majorities in Northampton North, Harrow East and Gloucester were won with the votes of affluent ethnic minorities.

A Survation poll for the think tank British Future put a figure on Cameron’s success: a third of all ethnic minorities voted Conservative in 2015, adding a million votes for the Tories. Most promisingly for them, for the first time among mixed-race voters, Labour failed to secure an outright majority, its share falling to 49 per cent (with the Conservatives on 26 per cent).

Other countries have more racially polarised splits in voting behaviour. In the United States, black voters backed Hillary Clinton by 88 per cent to Donald Trump’s 8 per cent: in the UK the Conservative share did not drop below 21 per cent among any minority group.

But Cameron’s greatest achievement among minority voters was yet to come: a year later, a landslide majority of ethnic-minority people turned out in an effort to maintain Britain’s membership of the EU. While white voters backed a Leave vote by 53 to 47 per cent, two-thirds of all Asian voters opted to remain, as did close to three-quarters of black voters and seven in every ten Muslim voters.

The votes of the brown were not enough to save Cameron from the preferences of the white. Which may indicate that, even if the polls showing a Conservative landslide in 2020 come to fruition, his electoral performance among minority voters will remain the high-water mark for a Tory leader.

As successive inquests into the Conservative defeats of 1997, 2001 and 2005 all found, the British right’s minority problem was decades in the making: not just Enoch Powell, but Norman Tebbit’s famous question about whether or not second- or third-generation immigrants truly supported the England cricket team. Even minority voters who responded to promises of lower taxes feared that a Tory government would never seriously seek to increase prosperity among minorities, however affluent they were.

In Theresa May, the Conservatives have an intriguing centre-forward. She was the home secretary who challenged the police on stop-and-search and who, as Prime Minister, has spoken explicitly about the colour bar to the highest professions. (“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white,” she said outside Downing Street on 13 July 2016.) But she is also the former home secretary who sent out vans calling on illegal immigrants to go home and the Prime Minister who said “if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”.

It is true that most second-generation and third-generation immigrants share the scepticism towards immigration of many of their white peers. But what David Cameron understood is that when Conservative politicians talked tough on border control, ethnic-minority voters often heard the harsh tones of the far right. He understood, too, that many ethnic minorities in this country feel they have a double citizenship, whether legally or culturally.

Given the likely shape of British politics in 2017, Theresa May will find it difficult to sustain her party’s appeal to ethnic minorities while appeasing the Brexiteers’ desire for tough measures on immigration. If she fails, British (and especially English) politics could begin to polarise more sharply along racial lines. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear