Minority Report: Ethnic minorities and the Conservative Party

Richard Black (Ex-Publications Editor, Lincoln) is an undergraduate studying History.

Between December 2011 and April 2012, Lord Ashcroft commissioned a survey to explore the relationship between the Conservative Party and ethnic minority groups. Whilst it is well known that support for the Conservative Party among ethnic minorities is rather small, the demographic figures he provided are startling to say the least.


           Out of a sample of 10,000 individuals and 20 discussion groups (drawn from Afro-Caribbean, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh backgrounds across the country), significant numbers of interviewees spoke of a historic affiliation with Labour. These included 55% of Blacks, 43% of Asians, 38% of Hindus, 47% of Muslims and 46% of Sikhs. In all these groups, support for the Conservatives was in the single figures, with the lowest support amongst Blacks and Muslims.


In the 2010 UK General Election, only 16% of ethnic minority voters – a total of 400,000 - supported the Conservatives. Over two thirds (or 68% precisely) provided support for Labour! It is true that this was down from the usual figures of 80% or more, but this was against the background of Labour’s worst electoral performance since 1918. Many of these voters live in highly marginal Labour seats. For example, Ashcroft noted that "In 20 of Labour's 100 most vulnerable marginals that the Tories failed to win, the average non-white population was 15%. In the five of those that were in London, it was 28%. The Conservative party's problem with ethnic minority voters is costing it seats." According to Sunder Katwala on ConservativeHome.com, David Cameron could have won an extra 500,000 votes and formed a majority government in 2010 if he had won over these voters.


Just on a pragmatic basis, these aren’t figures we can simply brush under the carpet. Changing demographics have permanently altered the electoral landscape. The ethnic minority population increased from 7% to 11% of Britain’s total population, according to the 2001 and 2011 censuses. The cross-party group Operation Black Vote has calculated that the number of seats where Black and Asian voters could decide the outcome of a General Election has risen by 70% since 2010. The ethnic minority vote is now bigger than the majority of a sitting MP in 168 constituencies. This applies to not only inner-city seats, but even smaller towns such as Southampton, Oxford, Sherwood, Ipswich and Northampton. If the party wants to stand a chance of winning the 2015 UK General Election, there has to be a serious effort to reach out to ethnic minority groups and address their deepest concerns.  On the other hand, there is another thing at stake – the reputation of a party which should stand for a tolerant Britain in which all cultures and backgrounds are acknowledged. We must be a party for the whole country.


Many of those interviewed for Lord Ashcroft’s survey were more concerned about class than race or religion. Even participants who were trained professionals considered themselves working class, and perceived the Labour Party as the one which best represented them. In particular, those from Northern communities considered the Conservative Party to be overwhelmingly Southern, middle class and publicly schooled. Others however did talk about race and immigration, and saw the Conservative Party as less accommodating on these issues. This was reflected in another study carried out by the Runnymede Trust in 2012, which showed that ethnicity did in fact trump class or occupation as a prediction of voting behaviour. Pritheephal Singh, one businessman from Southamption, told the BBC that in spite of his traditional values, he still views the Conservative Party as institutionally racist. He was also deeply concerned about the party’s stance on immigration. Rightly or wrongly, many ethnic minority groups associate the Conservative Party and its supporters with either hostility or indifference to people from ethnic minority backgrounds. This perception is notoriously hard to shake off - it is formed by half a century of cultural and historical experience. From Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech to the Brixton Riots of the 1980’s, the Conservative Party has been seen as insensitive when it comes to the matter of race. This is not an opinion that I agree with, nor is it one that I think is fair. But it is one that exists nevertheless, and we would be foolish to ignore it.


Dr. Liam Fox has warned of condescending rather than connecting with ethnic minority voters. To paraphrase Sadiq Khan, the Labour MP, it is simply not enough to just visit a Hindu Temple at Diwali, share a samosa at Eid or attend a community event during Black History Month. So how can the Party appeal to ethnic minorities without patronising them? One of the things the Party can do is properly formulate an idea of a civic leitkultur (or ‘core culture’). This idea of a ‘core culture’ was first set out in 1998 by Bassam Tibi, a German-Syrian sociologist. In contrast to multiculturalism (which in the pursuit of tolerance accepts that all cultural values, however illiberal, are absolutely equal), a ‘core culture’ creates an inclusive political citizenship that anyone can be a part of whilst still tolerating cultural and religious differences. It would serve as a perfect model of integration for settled immigrants, and show that Conservatives care more about where people are going than where they come from. Classic British values would all be at the heart of this clearly articulated philosophy. These include tolerance, patriotism, respect for the rule of law, personal responsibility, freedom and aspiration. These meritocratic values should be central to the message that David Cameron delivers at the next UK General Election.


Ethnic minority groups often exemplify the best of Conservative values, being family orientated, hard working and entrepreneurial. The 60,000 Asians who were forced out of Uguanda by Idi Amin in 1972 have made extraordinary contributions to British life. They came to this country with almost nothing and have achieved better and more prosperous lives for their families. The Anglo-Jewish community, numbering just under 300,000 individuals, has played a vital role in British society for the past three centuries. In the space of just fifty years, the mainstream Jewish community (which was traditionally left leaning) has undergone a great amount of social mobility and now politically aligns more closely with the centre-right. Much of this was due to the efforts of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who connected strongly with the then Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz, and did much to extinguish anti-Semitism amongst some local Conservative Associations. Her philosophy of personal responsibility and low taxation resonated with the affluent, suburban Jewish residents of her constituency in Finchley as well as the wider British Jewish community. A similar work ethic exists amongst other communities; for example, over a quarter of British Indians, Britain’s largest ethnic minority group, are thought to have voted Conservative in 2010. Past trends amongst the British Jewish community offer us further hope of connecting with aspiring voters from other minority backgrounds. 


We also need to actively engage with communities by getting our local Conservative Associations to regularly meet faith leaders, work with local charities and schools, and engage with particular concerns at MPs’ surgeries. Labour is currently performing these activities more effectively than we are. In their years of office, they introduced a raft of equal opportunities and anti-discrimination legislation. The Home Secretary has begun to address this; Theresa May has recently ordered a review of police stop and search powers. This is just one step in gaining the trust of many who feel they have been discriminated against. We should not be projecting the image of a party run by a narrow elite – the onus is on us to prove we are a party of meritocracy, and a party that is sensitive to the needs of all ordinary hardworking people, whatever their ethnic, cultural or religious background.


We are also trying to increase representation of minority groups in Parliament. Alok Sharma (the MP for Reading West) is in charge of ending the deficit in minority representation amongst the Conservative Party. There are currently 11 MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds representing the Conservative Party; that is only 5 fewer than Labour. This is a huge leap from the 2 Conservative MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds in 2005. There is also talk of introducing policies which will address the concerns of ethnic minority voters, such as forcing businesses to publish the racial makeup of their workforces in order to improve race equality. On top of this, there are a plethora of ‘friendship’ groups affiliated to the Party who are working to boost British economic and cultural cooperation with important countries such as India, China, Pakistan, Israel, Bangladesh and Turkey. Investing in our foreign relations is not only good for our economy – it is good for the diaspora communities who live and work in Britain and maintain close links with their families’ countries of origin. The Conservative Party, which is at heart a party of business, has a unique role to play here.


Whilst we must be sensible on the issue of immigration and address the concerns of many British people who worry about it, we must also balance that with the image it presents to minority communities. This was a debate which was ignored for far too long, but it is one which is highly sensitive and needs to be addressed accordingly. From 1997 to 2010, Labour allowed almost unrestricted immigration and over 2 million new immigrants arrived in this country.  Contrary to what some Conservative politicians have said, I don’t believe we can just introduce an amnesty for illegal immigrants.  We must communicate the message that legitimate concerns about immigration are practical - if we are to have a good standard of public services for people already in this country, including ethnic minorities, then we need to manage immigration carefully.  Many of the current problems in social housing, the NHS and the benefits system are connected to the adverse effects of mass immigration. At the same time, we do not need unappealing and ineffective billboards to tell illegal immigrants to go home. Such tactics scare away potential voters who may perceive us as a xenophobic Party.


It is a delicate balance, but the Conservative Party must readjust its image to an ethnically and culturally diverse Britain. Changing demographics have made this a matter of necessity, but it is also a good thing in itself. Many are still haunted by the ghosts of our past. It is up to David Cameron and Central Office to build a brighter future.