It is well-known that the Conservative Party has to work a little harder than its rivals when attempting to attract voters from certain parts of the UK population. With an unreformed boundary system meaning that the Tories also need to attract more votes than Labour to win a parliamentary majority, it would be wholly inappropriate and unwise for the party to ignore Britain’s growing ethnic minority communities.
This challenge is historical, with its origins dating back to the period following the arrival of the Empire Windrush. The party chose to adopt an aggressive approach to dealing with new migrants who arrived to help rebuild post-war Britain. Back then, anyone with noticeably dark skin was classified as either a “New Commonwealth Migrant” or simply as “coloured”. Labour would go on to become the party of choice for black and Asian Britons and would benefit from a monopoly of votes from ethnic minority groups for generations.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, would suffer by being the party that was in government during major riots in two generations. Parents like my own would remember how they were treated during Thatcher’s premiership and instinctively support Labour as a result. So history would demonstrate an element of fairness when asking why the Tories attracted just 16% of the BME vote at the last election. But the present state of play offers an opportunity to do much better. Under the last Labour government, the gap between the rich and the poor widened, crime significantly increased within inner city areas, and black youth unemployment rose to 50%. Labour has lost its status as the only party for ethnic minority communities, and the Bradford West by-election was a clear indication that voters are looking for something different.
In my new book Winning the Race, I talk about how I joined the Conservative Party aged 20 during my time as vice president of the Union of Brunel Students. This was my own attempt to find a new type of politics and an alternative to Labour. Yet we as a party have continued to ignore the fact that racial inequality is still an obstacle faced by many people in the UK. Instead, we speak as if ideals are realities when it comes to racial discrimination. Yesterday we celebrated the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He presented an ideal but never stopped dealing with the issues of the present. Inequalities still existed then, and still exist today.
Politicians in the UK have failed to effectively engage ethnic minority communities, but the future will belong to the party that succeeds in doing so. There is a genuine desire among the Conservatives to make progress in this area, and the fact that we went from having just two ethnic minority MPs to having 11 is a sign of progress under David Cameron. As a Conservative, it is my hope that there is a centre-right alternative when it comes to tackling inequalities. But, for now, that remains to be seen.
Samuel Kasumu is the founder of social enterprise Elevation Networks and the author of Winning the Race.