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12 August 2019updated 04 Oct 2023 12:02pm

Boris Johnson’s election strategy will ignore ethnic minorities in pursuit of Brexit voters

This might well work – in the short term.

By Omar Khan

Boris Johnson’s coronation as Conservative Party leader suggests the party’s election strategy could deliberately ignore ethnic minority voters. And, while Johnson’s diverse cabinet could appeal to ethnic minorities, evidence suggests this will not translate at the ballot box.

Every few years we hear the Conservative Party must reach out and do better among ethnic minority voters. Data suggests Theresa May would have had a parliamentary majority – and might still be Prime Minister – if she fared as well in diverse seats in the 2017 general election as David Cameron did in 2015.

Due to demographic change, constituencies that were safe Conservative seats in the 1980s – for example Harrow West – are now safe Labour ones, precisely because of the Tories’ woeful performance among ethnic minority voters.

What’s more, Obama’s success in the United States, led to excited analysis suggesting that “demography is destiny”, or a rising share of ethnic minority voters would lead to permanent Democrat (and Labour) majorities.

In 2019, with Donald Trump ensconced in the White House, it’s easy to sneer at this analysis, but it was also about persuasion: that Republicans (and Conservatives) needed to connect with ethnic minority voters as an electoral priority; that only by winning over more ethnic minority voters could the Republicans prevent the Democrats from winning.
Boris Johnson becoming Conservative leader helps explain why this analysis has gone awry. There appears to be a trade-off between appealing to ethnic minority voters and appealing to another, larger demographic.

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The Conservative Party membership that elected Johnson has two notable features: its older media age of 57 (four in 10 of them are over 65); and its lack of diversity (97 per cent are white). There are clearly many more voters to win among older white Tory party members than BME members.

This trade-off also exists outside the Tory membership. The Conservative’s election calculations boil down to whether the party should appeal to more ethnic minority voters, or whether there are more votes to win among older Brexit Party and UKIP supporters.

The reality is recent Conservative election campaigns seem more concerned about losing votes to UKIP than winning over ethnic minorities. In the 2010 general election, the Tories only won around 16 per cent of the BME vote; Labour won around 68 per cent. In the 75 most diverse seats, the Labour vote share went up by nearly 20 per cent between the 2010 and 2017, with no improvement for the Conservatives. In the 2017 general election, 77 per cent of BME voters supported Labour, and only 20 per cent the Conservatives.

In London the evidence is more striking, especially given the claim that Boris Johnson’s two mayoralty victories are evidence he is a One Nation Conservative. In the wards with the most BME voters, Johnson did worse than Zac Goldsmith, who suffered the worst ever loss of any second-place candidate.
In the wards with the most Black voters, Johnson got as little as 11 per cent of the vote. He did even worse in the wards with the most Muslims (as low as 10.4 per cent). In the wards with the most Sikh voters he polled 11.5 per cent. He lost the ward with the most Hindu voters (Alperton) by 36 points to Ken Livingstone.

These abysmal vote shares reveal that the Conservatives knew that Johnson would do poorly in wards with large numbers of BME votes, so instead sought to mobilise other voters, especially in outer London.
What does this mean? First, that Boris Johnson is not a One Nation Conservative – that’s based not just on his many divisive, racist comments, but also the votes of BME Londoners. Second, the recent Conservative Party has not been viewed as One Nation, and its vote share among ethnic minorities is no better than Donald Trump’s, whether it’s led by Johnson, Theresa May or David Cameron.
Third, and most worryingly, the calculation that the popularity of the Brexit Party combined with the few ethnic minority voters the Tories have to lose, suggest Johnson’s Conservative Party may mimic Trump’s GOP and could exploit culture war issues, as a path to electoral victory.

As with Trump and the Republican Party, there are limits to this strategy. It may be successful in the short term, but it will be unviable in the future, not just among ethnic minorities, but among liberal white voters, younger voters and university graduates.

And like the Republicans, the Tories will find it difficult to pivot to ethnic minority voters if an entire generation views them as toxic on race. Whatever happens it is naive to ignore the possible trade-offs in the short term simply because we want political parties to avoid using ‘wedge’ issues tactically to win votes.

We can fight to take away those wedges by consistently seeking a message – and policies – that benefit everyone, regardless of culture wars or any other divide. But if the past years have taught us anything it’s that division works.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust.

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