“Not being white was the single best predictor that somebody would not vote Conservative”. Perhaps no line better encapsulated why David Cameron did not win a majority in 2010 than this killer observation from Lord Ashcroft: 24 marginal seats would have turned blue if ethnic minorities had been as likely to vote for the Conservatives as white voters in 2010.
And the ethnic minority vote is rapidly gaining in political clout. Between 2001 and 2011, the ethnic minority population increased from nine to 14 per cent. It is expected to double, to 30 per cent, by 2050. This year, there are 50 Conservative seats in which Labour is second and the BME vote is larger than the Conservative majority.
And, after ten years of Cameronism, BME voters retain a dire opinion of the Conservatives. The party won just 16 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010, yet among all of the four ethnic groups recently surveyed by YouGov, the Conservatives are now faring even worse. Unless the Conservatives can transform their image with BME voters, they face an existential threat.
Too many in the Tory party have succumbed to political expediency, and the fool’s gold of tub-thumping on immigration: a tactic that has only legitimised Ukip. Lynton Crosby might also remember that immigrant bashing has served his campaigns very well in the past. 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.” Howard recently revealed to the FT that Crosby “saw to it that all the polling booths on election day had a part of the display covered with a photograph of me and a big banner with the slogan on it.”
Yet the Conservative Party has not been completely lacking in effort to court ethnic minorities. The reforms to stop and search announced by Theresa May – even if they had to overcome a fierce internal battle – might in time be seen marking a totemic shift in Tory policy towards BME voters.
And the party has also made significant steps to make itself look more like modern Britain. While some inside the party have criticised the apparent emphasis on cosmetic change over policy issues, having more ethnic minority Conservative MPs in Westminster is a fundamental facet of transforming the Tories’ image.
Between 1997 and 2005, there was not a single ethnic minority Conservative MP. That rose to two in 2005, and 11 after 2010, as the party has belatedly become more active in courting ethnic minorities to stand. It could now be on the cusp of a significant breakthrough: a new report from British Future suggests that the Conservatives may have as many ethnic minorities as Labour after May.
All of which should pose a significant warning for Labour. With an ageing population is a demographic trend that should benefit the Conservatives, Labour need to maintain its standing among ethnic minorities – 68 per cent of whom voted for Gordon Brown’s party in 2010 – to even have a chance of winning majorities in the future.
Yet Labour appears guilty of inertia in this task. While the party has 16 BME MPs – a record – that equates to just 5.8 per cent of the parliamentary party, compared with 14 per cent of the population. David Lammy recently warned that the party was, “in danger of looking incredibly complacent” in taking ethnic minority votes for granted, as so few new BME candidates have been selected in winnable seats: just two in the 37 seats in which Labour MPs are stepping down.
There are other manifestations of Labour’s lax approach. It has seemed more willing to indulge the rightward shift on immigration this Parliament than denounce it. And, while Labour has been assiduous in trying to entice young voters to the ballot box, it has done rather less where ethnic minorities are concerned. In 2010, 19 per cent of ethnic minorities were not registered to vote, three times the figure for the white British population; ethnic minorities were half as likely to be canvassed by Labour as white British people.
The upshot is that Labour’s appeal to ethnic minority voters has declined. Research by Maria Sobolewska blunts spells out Labour’s problem. From 1997 to 2014, the percentage of Pakistani voters identifying with Labour fell from 79 to 54 per cent; the percentage of African voters identifying with Labour fell from 79 to 59; and – most strikingly – the percentage of Indian voters identifying with Labour fell from 77 to 45 per cent.
All the while Labour’s share of the BME vote – distinct from its appeal with ethnic minority groups – has been insulated by the continued toxicity of the Conservatives. Labour should recoil at the merest hint that is changing. The party only needs to look to Scotland to see how emphatically swathes of voters the party once considered its own can turn against it if they see an alternative doing more to win their votes.
This first appeared on May 2015. Read Tim on The Myth of Scottish Exceptionalism