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8 May 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:32am

The Tories’ minorities push has come too late to help them in 2015

Transforming the right's standing among ethnic groups requires a longer march than is available in the final year of this Parliament. 

By Sunder Katwala

Britain’s growing ethnic diversity is not news, but the scale of grappling with the new realities of multi-ethnic Britain on the political right is certainly eye-catching. 

Just this past week, the Bright Blue manifesto saw ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman challenge his party to make a stronger offer to ethnic minorities; Lord Ashcroft has followed up his earlier major study by calling for the Conservatives to adopt a 10 to 20 year outreach strategy. Now, Policy Exchange has upped the ante with its very own “BME research unit”, its opening contribution is its Portrait of Modern Britain, an impressively accessible guide combining much of the existing data about multi-ethnic Britain.

Why so much Tory love-bombing of black, brown and beige Britain? Largely for that most sincere of political motives: electoral self-interest. The ethnic voting gap cost David Cameron an overall majority in 2010 – and at least 24 gains from Labour in crucial marginals. This will only matter more. An ever-increasing share of new voters will come from Britain’s expanding minority population: one in five of those who turn 18 during this Parliament aren’t white.

The central message of the Policy Exchange report is that the ethnic minorities can’t all be lumped together as a single group. “Has it really taken us until 2014 to realise that” asked David Lammy at Tuesday night’s launch. Lammy worries that all of the parties too often still sound as if they think that ethnic minority Britons have all just stepped off the boat.

The picture did long ago cease to be a simple one of white advantage versus non-white disadvantage. Third or fourth generation black Britons and recent Somali migrants may be on quite different trajectories. Yet several broader generalisations remain valid too. Britain’s ethnic minorities, generally, are younger, more urban (though slowly more suburban), more religious, more likely to be graduates, yet more likely to be unemployed too. Citizens from minority backgrounds have the strongest sense of being British – and, across every minority group, are much less likely to vote Tory.

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There are nuances within these broad brush-strokes: the Conservatives won around one in six (16 per cent) non-white votes overall last time, but only 9 per cent of Afro-Caribbeans, and one in four (24 per cent) British Indians. But that is hardly a more impressive score, once you realise that Indian Brits have pretty much converged completely, in socio-economic terms on the white British average, indeed moving slightly ahead. So the voting gap here – with Labour 37 points ahead among British Indians, on 61 per cent even in 2010, almost entirely reflects the hangover from a toxic Tory past image.

An analysis focused on different ethnic community groups has its limits too.  It would be difficult to talk coherently about a “white British” experience of our country in 2014: graduates and non-graduates, the youngest and the oldest see their country very differently, as the marmite phenomenon of Ukip demonstrates. Such divergent experiences by age, class and education will increasingly apply within most minority communities too. If anything, the speed of shifts in outlook, between first generation migrants and their British-born, British-educated grandchildren may well be greater.

Though Jessica Ennis is celebrated in Policy Exchange’s cover blurb, hers, now the largest ethnic minority group features only briefly in the report, because mixed race Britons aren’t really a ‘group’ at all. Ennis was declared “the face of the census” as the number of mixed race Britons doubled in a decade. Over two million Brits today are of mixed ethnic heritage, though around half tick other census boxes. While the report presents the data for the five largest “distinct ethnic communities”, Britain’s long-term racial demographics have a stronger “melting pot” dynamic than in the United States, where three-quarters of those of mixed ethnicity marry somebody from another minority background. By contrast, three-quarters of marriages involving mixed race Britons are to somebody white.

Newspaper headlines declared that a third of Britons will be “ethnic minorities” three decades from now, but who really knows what the term will even mean in 2050? Should we really have expected Lord Scarman, assessing the Brixton riots in 1981, to have envisioned our Olympic summer of 2012? Those “ethnic minority” Brits of 2030 will include many more people like Jessica Ennis (or, indeed, her new baby), Ryan Giggs and Seb Coe, or my own children, for whom ethnic identity may well become as much a matter of choice, not ascription.

Ethnic groups which retain low rates of intermarriage will remain more distinct; others, like the Caribbean category, are fast-disappearing as a distinct group. So the group categories should come under increasing pressure from the lived reality of contact and integration. Faith is often already a more important badge of “community” allegiance than ethnicity, as it has long been for Britain’s Jewish community, the classic “model minority”, who helped later groups, such as the Ugandan Asians, to find their voice and place too. Whether we are “majority”, “minority” or somewhere in between, strengthening common and inclusive “in group identities” that we all share – such as a civic Englishness as well as Britishness – will usually be the best focus of public and political energy. 

In contrast to the energy on the right, the centre-left is eerily quiet. Its think-tanks don’t talk much about race anymore. Dangerous complacency? Perhaps. The Canadian picture changed pretty quickly. It would be good for Britain, and for racial integration too, were the right to succeed in creating a proper contest for all of the votes in our multi-ethnic society. Non-white Britons are ill-served as citizens if one party thinks they are out of reach and the other that they are in the bag.

Firstly, Ukip. The think-tankers and party strategists see minority outreach as an existential challenge. On the backbenches and in the constituency associations, the Ukip revolt is top of mind. In a country that is 14 per cent ethnic minority, the Ukip vote is 99.4 per cent white, according to the authoritative recent study by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, and certainly doesn’t see Britain rising diversity as confidently as the Policy Exchange report. How many MPs and candidates are talking about the need to win more non-white votes in the week after the European Elections? Paul Goodman’s Bright Blue essay sets an essential “golden rule”: “any pitch for ethnic minority votes must be in the interests of the country as a whole”. Any offer to the Ukip minority should be held to a similar standard too.

The Ukip vote is much older too. The Conservatives have been the party of older Britons. That will never be the case with ethnic minority Britons, where the Labour allegiances of the first generation. They need to bring the votes of younger non-white Britons into play. The next generation do have much lower levels of partisan allegiance – and would expect to be able to shop around with their votes. Though more highly educated, they have lower levels of political trust than their elders – integrating into the more apathetic British norm – and their confidence in being British makes them more demanding if they believe they are discriminated against. Theresa May’s push to move faster on stop and search could therefore by of both practical and symbolic importance. Yet age, as much as ethnicity, could be a barrier, if the Tory pitch seemed to prioritise those high turnout pensioners.

Secondly, talk has not yet turned into much action, nor yet a clear strategy, beyond the mantra of there being “no quick fixes”. Several core questions remain unresolved. Could an account of the past – even an “apology” – break the ice, or would it just stir up old ghosts, even with voters who may never have heard of Enoch? Should the party select and target specific groups – Hindus and Sikhs, rather than Muslims; affluent Africans, but not Afro-Caribbeans – with whom it has most chance of progress, or would being spotted doing this risk exacerbating mistrust of the party’s motives?

Thirdly, perhaps the most important question: is it now too late for 2015? The message discipline which Lynton Crosby wants to impose on the Conservative campaign may cut across efforts to reach out to minority voters.

The Conservatives have chosen an guru with an impressive electoral record. He certainly knew how to win the Australian election of 2001. But it will be another year before we know whether Crosby had the wrong play-book to appeal to the changing face of the Britain of 2015.

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