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  1. Politics
25 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:25pm

The Conservatives are finally taking their ethnic minority problem seriously

By Stephen Bush

The new cabinet sends one big and obvious message to voters: we’re closed.

I mean that in two senses. Firstly, it signals to Remain voters that they should look elsewhere. And secondly, as far as the political divide that looks to be driving voting intention across the democratic world – between the “open” socially liberal, degree-holding, city-dwelling voters and the “closed” socially conservative, non-degree educated, rural and suburban voters – this is a cabinet whose personnel signal an alignment with the closed. 

Although all of the new appointments are degree-educated, and many live in big cities, they are aligned with the closed on a variety of significant cultural issues – from LGBT rights to the death penalty – and on the major issue of public policy, Brexit, which for most voters is a corollary of their attitude and worldview on social issues, rather than the result of a particularly developed view of the European Union’s institutions or the United Kingdom’s role within it. 

That’s part of why Jeremy Corbyn was able to attract the support of so many Remain voters in 2017 – while his party’s position was explicitly pro-Brexit, his wider socially liberal bona fides meant that Labour felt like the natural home for many Remainers. (It helped, too, that the explicitly pro-Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, were at the time led by a man whose views on gay sex and abortion rights put him at odds with most Remain voters.) Jacob Rees-Mogg’s elevation to the cabinet is a good example of this: most voters don’t know very much about Rees-Mogg but they know that he is A Brexit Guy and will form their views about him and the new government accordingly. 

There are a variety of ways that an electoral coalition of the kind that poll show Johnson has at the moment could secure a parliamentary majority or at least stand still in terms of the number of seats it holds in parliament. But they all involve outsourcing the party’s destiny to other political forces. In England, it means hoping that the Liberal Democrat revival causes more Labour seats to fall to the Conservatives indirectly than it causes Conservative seats to be loss to the Liberal Democrats directly, a dynamic I wrote about in my column this week. In Scotland, it means betting that constitutional issues are once again sufficiently to the fore that Ruth Davidson can successfully win seats by campaigning on a noun, a verb and the need to stop a second independence referendum. 

I’m not saying these bets can’t come off – but they are fundamentally quite risky bets and they make it very tricky to deliver a parliamentary majority capable of achieving the wide-ranging reforms that many of Johnson’s cabinet allies want. 

But there is one very important part of the British electorate that the Conservatives might do better among than they have in the past, one almost entirely neglected by the commentariat and by most political strategists: the third or so of British ethnic minority voters who backed a Leave vote in 2016, most of whom did not go on to back the Conservatives in 2017. 

This vote, rather like the record number of ethnic minority MPs that Johnson has promoted to the cabinet, includes some black and mixed-race voters but the largest single chunk are from British Asian backgrounds. 

Doing as well with ethnic minority voters as Vote Leave did – more ethnic minority voters backed a Brexit vote than have ever voted Conservative – is fundamentally an existential issue for the Conservative Party if they want to both be a party of Brexit and a party that can win decent majorities under first-past-the-post, without crossing their fingers and hoping that the minor parties defeat Labour for them. 

While promoting a record number of minority politicians isn’t going to get them there on their own, it is the first sign of a Conservative leader taking the problem seriously since June 2016.

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