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15 November 2007

Black & blue

Labour has long taken the vote of ethnic minorities for granted. But Afro-Caribbean voters have a na

By David Matthews

In the run-up to the 2005 general election, I did an antithetical thing, for someone of Afro-Caribbean origin. I joined the Conservative Party. I say “joined”, but what I really mean is that I “infiltrated” the Tory election campaign in Richmond, southwest London. I wanted to find out, among other things, whether the Tories were as washed up as political commentators said they were. Were they really an archaic, ageing movement cast adrift from modern Britain? And with immigration the main theatre of the election, how would a nationalistic, right-wing party welcome a black hack from across the tracks?

The 2001 census recorded only 1 per cent of the population as “Black British” and only one-third of this 1 per cent in the sub-category “Caribbean”. How would the Tories take to my going on the road with them in one of the country’s wealthiest constituencies?

I was met by the enthusiastic but also mildly embarrassed parliamentary candidate, Marco Forgione. While Forgione, a caterer by trade who had previously stood for, and lost, the Yeovil seat in Devon, welcomed my arrival as “fantastic, really fantastic”, his elderly sidekick lurking in the corner in a blue double-breasted blazer exclaimed: “He’s black!” On the doorsteps, though, Tory supporters were generally cool about me, while black people eyed me suspiciously.

Forgione increased the Tories’ share of the vote by 1.9 per cent, but the Liberal Democrats held on. Michael Howard’s use of immigration as an election issue backfired. The Nasty Party was still, well, nasty. Tony Blair hadn’t got a “bloody nose” over Iraq, and I was far from convinced that black and blue were colours that mixed.

In many respects, Afro-Caribbean and African people are tailor-made for the Tory party. It was the Tories who introduced the 1948 British Nationality Act, which gave all members of the Commonwealth the right to British citizenship and kick-started mass immigration into the UK. In the summer of that year, 492 Jamaicans stepped off the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Kent and a new ethnic community in Britain was born. Britain was a cold, austere and hostile place for foreigners, but it was a Tory shadow home secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, who welcomed the arrivals with warm words: “We are proud that we impose no colour-bar restrictions. We must maintain our great metropolitan traditions of hospitality to everyone from every part of the empire.”

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Despite an open-door policy, Caribbean immigration was at first a trickle, with annual figures in the low hundreds. The adoptive country of choice for most West Indians was the US. But following the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, which restricted entry into America, UK immigration increased steadily. In 1962, my parents arrived from British Guiana (now Guyana). They were classic immigrants: hard-working, self-sufficient, homeowners. Tailor-made Tories.

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The diaspora is still culturally conservative. Attitudes toward child discipline, abortion and homosexuality are deeply reactionary. A few years ago, a poll showed 96 per cent of Jamaicans were opposed to legalising homosexuality. The African diocese of the Anglican Church is now so right-wing that even God feels like a guilty white liberal. But does social and cultural conservatism equal political conservatism?

“It’s impossible to make a general statement about the politics of black people,” says Trevor Phillips, head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. “But yes, Conservative support will expand, especially if non-pocketbook issues, such as family and faith rise up the agenda. Cameron could do better if he can create an agenda that is attractive to social conservatives.”

The role of class

Lynda Cowell, a former journalist with the black tabloid The Voice, says for her it boils down to history: “I can appreciate that Labour isn’t what it was, and the lack of difference between the parties has caused widespread apathy. But even if the Tories persuaded me they were genuine, they’d still have to erase their inherently right-wing past. The name Maggie Thatcher alone is enough to ensure that I never vote Tory.”

“Cameron is proving to be a slick operator, but I don’t want slick, I want logic,” says Michael Groce, whose Jamaican-born mother Cherry was shot by the police in 1985, sparking off an event that defines the Thatcher era for many black people: the Brixton riots. “Communities across the country are experiencing tough times with gun culture, hoodie culture and so forth. The Tories need to be more radical and innovative and to do that they have to build a better, bigger and more inclusive grassroots, which includes more black people.”

Ipsos MORI examined the voting behaviour of black and minority ethnic (BME) voters after the 2005 election. The findings confirm what friends, relatives and colleagues tell me: scarcely more than 2 per cent of Caribbean and African respondents had voted Conservative, compared with 80 per cent support for Labour. The report also highlighted the fact that, for black people, class played a bigger role in voting preferences than in the overall population. In other words, so long as the overwhelming majority of black people stay rooted at the bottom of the social ladder, those who choose to vote will vote Labour. No black middle class – no black Tory vote.

The political awareness of Caribbean and African voters is subtly distinct. “Nigerian conservatives don’t rest in one philosophical place,” says Ola Solanke, a British-born Nigerian entrepreneur whose father came to Britain in the 1950s as a student, joined the Young Conservatives and went on to work for Harold Macmillan, despite strong links with the trade union movement. “My father came here to do his LLB [law exams] at King’s College so, because of the people around him, he was very conservative. But that didn’t stop him from working with the TGWU or becoming a founder member of WASU [the West African Student Union – an instrumental force behind Nigeria’s independence]. West Africans don’t have the linear view of politics that people have in Britain.”

Solanke is typical of many West Africans I’ve spoken to. In the immigration heyday of the 1950s, the social and professional mobility of West Africans put them in closer contact with old-school Tories than with the proletariat. Today, the network has expanded into the equally conservative world of business and finance too. For people from the Caribbean however, the relationship with the indigenous population was different. Working in the NHS, British Rail and other public services, many Caribbean immigrants came into contact with the working class and trade union movement, and had little to do with elite groups. Consequently, Labour monopolised the black vote early on, despite the hostility of trade unionists toward black workers because of a perceived threat to jobs. Now, though, that monopoly may have reached breaking point.

“The Labour Party has had the black vote for over 50 years and what have they done with it?” says Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, the Tories’ 50-year-old Jamaican-born candidate for the new constituency of Chippenham, Wiltshire. “Where are the black MPs on the Labour front bench?”

Emmanuel-Jones is one of nine black and ethnic minority candidates the Tories will field at the next general election. At present, there are 15 such MPs, of whom two are Tories, including Windsor’s Adam Afriyie – the party’s first black MP. But there is a long way to go. According to Operation Black Vote, which campaigns for greater black political engagement, a representative figure would be 50 to 60 MPs.

Conservatives and race

Emmanuel-Jones grew up lacking any real qualifications in inner-city Birmingham. He made it as a BBC producer and has since forged an anachronistic career as the tweed-branded “Black Farmer”. But the political arena is where he intends to make an impact. “In the Caribbean, black people are very entrepreneurial . . . and very political. Politics is about being relevant. And it’s about politicians seeing your relevance. The only time black people seem to be politically relevant is when there’s a riot.”

Emmanuel-Jones’s selection came courtesy of Cameron’s controversial “A-list”, which he stresses is about “positive action not positive discrimination”. As one Tory insider assured me: “The selection of our candidates is through local associations, which are autonomous. We wouldn’t instigate shortlists or parachute in candidates like some other parties.”

The Tories have tried to broaden their appeal by putting wannabe MPs through open primaries in which locals, regardless of party pol itical persuasion, are allowed to vote for the candidate of their choice.

“Being bullied about race has forced the Tory movement to think about it and act on it,” says Shaun Bailey, a charismatic, sharp and pragmatic 35-year-old community worker and Tory poster-boy candidate for the newly created Hammersmith seat in London. Bailey admits he had concerns about the Tories and racism, but was drawn to them by his own sense of conservatism and what he says is a concerted effort by David Cameron to woo black voters.

“It’s not like they’ve said we need to get 13.5 per cent of the party black, unlike the new Labour caucus that says they need a quota. The Tories adopt the talent; new Labour’s quota is just for the wedding photo.

“If I was the first or the only black candidate, I’d worry about how I’d fit in. But the quality of the other candidates . . . and knowing I’m not the only one, is reassuring. Even the most Labourite 1980s black person will listen to me. They might not agree with everything I say, but they’ll listen.”

Bailey, who runs a youth charity called My Generation, is everything the traditional Tories are not. In his treatise on urban decay, No Man’s Land, published by the centre-right think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, he describes how he grew up in a neighbourhood racked by drugs, crime and social breakdown. Nevertheless, he has an uncompromising attitude toward such issues: “People are shocked at my conservative views. But left-wing politics equals welfare politics.”

Disillusion with Labour

Bailey’s right-wing musings, often in the London Evening Standard and usually on crime and education, have been gaining ground in black circles. In a coup for the Tories, Bertha Joseph, the first black mayor of Ken Livingstone’s former constituency of Brent in north-west London, has joined the Cameron bandwagon after 20 years in the Labour Party. She claims they have failed to address crime in her area: “When there were shootings in Kensal Green, I organised meetings with the local community but was told to cancel them.”

She said that joining the Tories was “the natural thing to do because of David Cameron’s attitudes towards youth and crime. During his leadership he has embraced our multicultural society in a way I have not seen projected by Labour.”

At the time of the defection, Brent councillor Ann John said: “Bertha has become increasingly right-wing, especially since her failed bid to win the Labour nomination for Brent South.” But the lack of success in gaining nominations is cited as a reason black people are disillusioned with Labour. Even in constituencies such as Brent, with significant numbers of black voters, Labour is failing to select black candidates. Vauxhall, which includes north Brixton, has never had a black candidate. In 1989, Martha Osamor was the overwhelming choice of Labour activists but party bigwigs, led by the then leader Neil Kinnock, chose Kate Hoey instead. Such decisions could cost Labour in the future.

“The black Tory candidates have all pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and that plays well with the [black] community,” says a senior Labour source. “Most of the voices speaking for the community are conservatives with a small ‘c’ – teachers, preachers, community workers.” For black people, civil rights and conservatism are not mutually exclusive.

Increasingly, the black community is questioning the “special relationship” with Labour. As Shaun Bailey says: “Climate change, obesity and the environment are not what black people want to hear about. Black people want policies that address crime, education, single parenthood . . . ”

“I think we have a difficulty with conservatism with a small ‘c’,” says my Labour source. “We haven’t managed to communicate with black people. The small ‘c’ voice is not being heard. That’s where Cameron has managed to make capital.”

On race, Bailey thinks his party has “wised up”. But within days of telling me that “someone will [always] pop up saying something racist – in an organisation of 300,000 people that’s understandable but it’s not a big deal”, his point is all too clearly illuminated by Nigel Hastilow, a wannabe Tory candidate from the Midlands, who evoked the spirit of Enoch Powell and claimed he was right on immigration. Following pressure from Cameron, Hastilow resigned.

“There’s still work to do, but we’re making good progress with the selection of nine excellent black and minority ethnic candidates in key, winnable seats,” says the Tory party chairman, Caroline Spelman.

Race is an itch that the Tories must scratch and it runs from the toe of the party to the head. David Cameron’s alleged off-the-cuff remarks about “one-legged Lithuanian lesbians” at a recent arts funding lunch may have nothing to do with black people. But they strike me as typically schizo-Tory race talk.

Serious discussion about immigration and cultural identity is easily undermined by cheap jokes. Cameron knows that. His party has to put the ghost of Enoch Powell to rest, if black people are to turn blue. But that doesn’t mean that Labour can rely on the unconditional loyalty of black voters.

“I think Labour has taken us for granted. Black people need to reconnect with their conservative roots,” says Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones.