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  1. Election 2024
15 October 2014

Fifty years on, the Conservative party’s race problem remains

The ethnic minority population will double to 30 per cent by 2050.

By Tim Wigmore

The 1964 general election was kind to Labour, who gained a three percent swing from the Conservatives. But there was one seat that dramatically bucked the trend.

Smethwick, in the West Midlands, had the highest concentration of recent immigrants of any county borough in England. Many did not approve of the development. “Most pubs excluded black drinkers from their lounge bars, and some barbers even refused to cut their hair,” Dominic Sandbook notes in White Heat. The Conservative campaign in the seat exploited the mood. It used the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” – and Peter Griffiths gained the seat with a remarkable seven percent swing.

Fifty years after Smethwick, the Conservatives remain toxic to many ethnic minority voters. The problems, of course, extend far beyond Smethwick, to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and Michael Howard’s ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ general election campaign in 2005.

Research by Lord Ashcroft has found that, in 2010, “Not being white was the single best predictor that somebody would not vote Conservative”. Only 16 percent of ethnic minorities voted Conservative in 2010, compared with 37 percent of the white population. Without the ethnic gap, the Conservatives would have won a majority and had no need for Nick Clegg. British Future has found that 24 marginal seats would have changed from Labour to Conservative if ethnic minorities had been as likely to vote for the Conservatives as white voters in 2010.

And the Conservative Party fared especially badly among the black electorate. In 2010, just nine percent of black Caribbean voters supported the Tories; and only six percent of black African voters did. This was emphatically not just about socioeconomic factors, either: Dr Maria Sobolewska of Manchester University estimates that black voters are up to six times less likely to vote Conservative than an otherwise identical white person. This abysmal performance came in spite of efforts made to expand the Conservative Party’s appeal to black and minority ethnic voters: far more ethnic minority candidates stood for the Tories than ever before, and a record 11 were subsequently elected to Westminster.

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The repercussions for the Conservative if they continue to fail to engage ethnic minorities will only become more pronounced. Between 2001 and 2011, the ethnic minority population increased from nine to 14 percent. The ethnic minority proportion of the population is expected to double, to 30 per cent, by 2050.

Increased turnout among ethnic minorities would make the Conservatives’ problem even more pressing. Historically, ethnic minority voters have been less likely to vote than the white population, largely because they are much less likely to be registered. In 2010, 19 percent of all ethnic minorities, and 28 percent of black Africans, were not registered to vote, compared with seven percent of the white population. But attempts are being made, such as through Operation Black Vote’s touring bus and faith groups, to try and increase ethnic minority registration. As a Demos report this year made clear, the Conservatives are likely to lose marginal seats like Enfield North and Dewsbury because of demography alone.

While there have been modest signs of the Conservatives improving their standing with the Indian community – 24 percent backed the Tories in 2010 – the surge in the black African electorate presents a particular challenge. The black African population rose by 106 percent between 2001 and 2011, three times that of the Indian population. So far this group has proved extraordinarily loyal to Labour: 87 percent of black Africans voted for the party in 2010, which Professor Anthony Heath attribites to “a legacy of Labour’s historical efforts to tackle discrimination against minorities.”

Some Tories understand the challenges. Theresa May has pushed through reforms to stop and search law. The party appointed Alok Sharma as Tory vice chairman two years ago, charged with improving the party’s standing among ethnic minority voters. Adam Afriyie, the first black Conservative MP, says that “many British Africans and Asians are naturally small-c conservative.” He declares himself “optimistic” that they are now inclined to hear the Conservative message, but believes that “it would be patronising and wrong to succumb to the knee-jerk politics of announcing new policies to specifically ‘buy’ off non-white voters.” 

But aspects of the Conservative Party’s response to Ukip – ramping up anti-immigration rhetoric and the notorious ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans last year – risk repelling ethnic minority voters. Perhaps that is no surprise, given Lynton Crosby’s success in Australia. John Howard was triumphant in 2001 after launching his election campaign with a speech that declared: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

And ultimately if the Conservative Party is seen as not entirely comfortable with how modern Britain looks it will damage the party’s standing with more than just ethnic minority voters. “The ‘racist’ past and image may be hurting the Conservatives among young voters who have black minority friends,” Maria Sobolewska believes.

Whether the Conservatives can adapt to the changing electoral map will go a long way towards determining the party’s viability as a 21st Century electoral force; aping Ukip’s rhetoric does not suggest a party recognising the scale of the threat that demographic change poses. At the ballot box next May, Peter Griffiths’s victory will continues to exert a heavy toll on David Cameron’s party.

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