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  1. Election 2024
22 March 2016

What can the Conservatives do for ethnic minority Britons?

If the right plays its cards right, it could take a decisive chunk of the non-white vote for the first time.

By Trevor Phillips

The brutal truth is that it has always been smart politics for mainstream Conservatives to avoid thinking about race, and to ignore the votes of people of colour. To start with they have been dogged for almost half a century by the disastrous legacy of Enoch Powell. Silence always seemed the better part of valour. And, anyway, until recently there haven’t been that many non-white votes to be had. People of colour were less likely to register to vote. Of those who did register, many didn’t turn up on the day. Of those who did, the vast majority invariably sided with the Labour Party. And the most compelling argument for remaining tight-lipped about race – for both left and the right – was that conspicuous efforts to appeal to minority voters were thought likely to lose more white votes than they gained from people of colour.

But things are changing. The Prime Minister’s recent declaration that his administration will not havesucceeded if it has not made strides in tackling racial and ethnic inequality was a milestone for British politics. He pinpointed educational failure and chronic discrimination as major issues within British society, and called for change. Second, Cameron’s appointment of Louise Casey, the candid, no-nonsense civil servant, to encourage the integration of minority groups – not least Muslim Britons – is a refreshing, if belated, acknowledgement that entire communities are gradually drifting away from the mainstream.

Most importantly, the Tory leader’s demarche effectively buries the lingering taint of Powellism. Our Prime Minister hasn’t yet gone as far as his German counterpart Angela Merkel did in 2005, when she told Germans that immigrants should no longer be treated as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to be embraced. Yet the idea of a non-partisan, national mission to eliminate racial discrimination finally seems possible.

It’s about time. There are several reasons why our country desperately needs a change of gear on race equality. To start with, there’s the democratic case. Under both the British and American systems, a party’s electoral success can rest on its ability to persuade a minority of opposition voters.  But as the Republican Party is discovering, with immigration and asymmetric birth-rates boosting ethnic minority populations, it is increasingly impossible to assemble a credible plurality without appealing to the needs of minority voters.

Second, race in politics isn’t only about the influence of minorities. It’s also about the principles and values of the whole electorate. In the UK racism has become – amongst the young at least – a kind of original sin. Conservatives could hardly ignore the change in public sentiment.

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Third, the centre-right is finally waking up to the fact that many migrants share their values and behaviours. Today, socially conservative African, Filipino and Latino immigrants are breathing new life into both the Church of England and Roman Catholicism. David Voas, a sociologist, predicts that:  “The future of religion in Britain is to be found in Islam and the black majority churches”. The 2011 census painted a similar picture of marriage. More than 98 per cent of UK marriages are between couples of the same ethnicity. The character of these unions therefore gives us a good idea of cultural attitudes to family formation within different communities. For households with a UK born head, marriage rates are around 65 per cent; cohabitation rates are 17 per cent. Amongst minority households from the Middle East and Asia – the largest minority group – the equivalent figures are 79 per cent and six per cent. The contrast is even more pronounced with Indian households.

And then there is education, often the only legacy left intact after the process of international migration. Academic achievement is characteristically a priority for many immigrant families; children from these backgrounds are twice as likely to receive private tuition outside schools as their white peers. At 29 per cent, the proportion of ethnic minority pupils is significantly higher in private schools than in state schools (23 per cent). Most of these children are not rich foreigners; even amongst British nationals, minorities are over-represented in the sector. These are ambitious new Brits.

Finally the left’s weakness has delivered the centre-right a window of opportunity. After decades of taking the loyalty of ethnic minority voters for granted, European social democracy is struggling to find a story for itself that reconciles social diversity with equality. In the UK, Labour has even surrendered its historic symbolic parliamentary advantage. Before 2010, almost all MPs of colour were on the Labour benches; today, 17 of the 40 minority MPs in the House of Commons are Conservatives.

For the first time in 50 years, the Tories can get a hearing on race equality. But they now face the challenge of developing a modern stance on race equality which does not undermine their commitment to individual freedom and the primacy of the market, or send a signal to white voters that their interests are suddenly less important than those of minorities.

So what should a Conservative race equality programme look like? I imagine that a centre-right strategy would have three arms: political, social and economic.

The easiest is the politics. The Tories have made good ground in shedding their image as a party uncomfortable around people who do not happen to be white. Part of this has been sheer effort. Learning from their Canadian counterparts, and led by the Camerons themselves, the British Conservatives have ramped up their presence at cultural events, particularly those within the Asian community. In 2015, the think tank British Future suggested that the Tories, who had taken just 16 per cent of the minority vote in 2010, had since accumulated an extra million votes from non-white Britain.

Second, the centre-right could, and probably should, raise the stakes by differentiating itself on issues of social and cultural conservatism. The proposal to put more effort into making migrants learn English may be cloaked as an opportunity to bring women, especially in Muslim communities, closer to the labour market; but it is also a cultural clarion call for a policy of active integration. In essence, the message is “join in, or you’ll be left out”.

This does not have to be a hostile or stigmatising proposition; most surveys of opinion suggest that minority communities are more hawkish on language acquisition than the average – they believe that not speaking English well can be a huge barrier to achievement. An effective centre-right race equality policy might also establish programmes to promote religious freedoms for evangelical and other religious movements, for instance by making it easier to set up faith schools. Conservatives could also consider a return to waving the flag for traditional marriage, still popular amongst minorities, though this might appear to clash with Cameron’s manifest enthusiasm for same-sex marriage.

Ultimately, however, any sustainable centre-right programme of race equality must tackle the economic disadvantage suffered by minority Britons. The scale of the challenge is immense; and the resources required unprecedented. Compare our integration programmes with those of Germany and the USA. In 2016, the German federal Chancellery is making a sum in excess of eight billion euros available to help regional governments with extra housing, teachers and other services. This is in addition to the sums normally expended to support integration.

The White House too is deploying big money. Obama has raised 300 million dollars, mostly from the private sector for a single initiative, ‘My Brother’s Keeper’, aimed at keeping young black men out of crime. The publication of data exposing lamentable figures for black and hispanic Americans employed by Silicon Valley’s major companies has spurred the tech giants to invest vast sums into diversity. Intel alone has pledged to spend 300 million dollars over the next four years.

Meanwhile, the UK has no obvious government-wide strategy. The presence of an energetic minority Cabinet Minister, Sajid Javid, may be a catalyst for action but his  efforts have yet to materialise into any real, tangible change. A centre-right government is unlikely to increase legislation or regulation (through quotas, for example). But there is a market-based approach that could make a major difference.

First, transparency. We need better information, publically available and widely disseminated. Consumers should know what sort of company they are supporting. Over the past two years, our team at Green Park Executive Recruitment has shown that the minority presence within the leadership of top UK companies is both tiny (under five per cent), and diminishing. This has galvanised some smart business leaders, led by Sir John Parker of the mining giant Anglo American, into trying to clean up our act. They argue that companies with more diverse leaderships attract higher grade talent from all backgrounds.

But fear of breaching the Data Protection Act discourages many companies from keeping reliable ethnicity data. Recruitment firms and agencies cannot offer diverse lists of candidates because they are not allowed routinely to identify people with their ethnic background. A Conservative government committed to competition would make such information easily available; the excuse that a company “didn’t know where the minority candidates were” would be invalidated.

A centre-right government would also find new ways of challenging the professional bodies’ stranglehold over advancement in the law, medicine and academia. Whilst at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I found that the angriest people of colour, who most deeply resented their exclusion from opportunity, were not black teenagers who felt school had failed them, nor poor Asian women on low pay. They were lawyers, doctors and teachers who had worked hard, gained qualifications and lived up to the demands of white society – and yet had found the pathway to the top jobs – judges, consultants, professorships –  perpetually blocked. They have a case. There is almost no minority presence amongst the senior judiciary; and just 17 female non-white professors in our universities. It’s deeply frustrating for these people and it’s profoundly demotivating for young people.

Transparency would make a difference here too. Every professional body would be required to publish annual data recruitment and employment compared to the ethnic mix of qualified candidates. Should the situation fail to change, ministers might review the legal privileges accorded professional bodies – most of which only survive because practitioners need to pay them fees in order to be licensed. The cold breeze of competition would certainly facilitate progress.

Finally, it is in the private sector where ethnic minorities experience the greatest disappointment. Minority graduates are up to 15 per cent less likely to be employed than their white peers; even those in work suffer a 23 per cent ethnic pay penalty. Greater transparency at the level of the individual enterprise will show that there is, in most cases, an equality deficit in pay, promotion and retention.

A government-led system of financial reward and relief would incentivise companies in this area. An equity levy on companies would create a pool of funds, similar to that created for apprenticeships, aimed towards supporting diversity-centred programmes of sponsorship, development and additional training. Any company bidding for funds from the pool would be required to reveal relevant data which, over time, would encourage openness. On the other hand, companies that did well on the metrics could be completely exempted from the levy.

Britain has come a long way. Most people today, regardless of their background, view race equality as an indicator of a healthy modern society. It is no longer solely a concern of minorities or a partisan advantage for the political left. But we have much more to do. This is a national mission, and whilst the centre-right approach may be different from that traditionally pursued by the left, the debate is now about how rather than if we change. It is the right argument to have. Let battle commence.

This essay appears in Conservativism and Human Rights, a series of essays published by BrightBlue.

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