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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 British politics.

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

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”