If Conservatives cannot woo black and Asian voters, they may never win majorities again
AFTER failing to win the 2010 general election, Conservative leaders came to a sobering conclusion. To win majorities in future, the party needs more MPs like Paul Uppal—a state-educated Sikh entrepreneur who cut across class and ethnic lines to snatch the seat of Wolverhampton South West from Labour.
Mr Uppal only half-agrees. Addressing an away-day for Tory MPs on February 24th, he reported a perception among ethnic minorities that Conservatives are “disengaged” from their concerns. A dapper, clean-shaven figure, Mr Uppal drew their attention to Canada, where a namesake, Tim Uppal, is a Conservative minister, resplendent in a bushy black beard and turban. Our party has a way to go, he declared, looking forward to the day when that style of Uppal speaks for a British Tory government. The line was warmly received, but was, for all that, a rebuke.
The recapture of Wolverhampton South West had historical resonance. A mix of suburbs and increasingly Asian urban districts, the constituency spent decades in Tory hands. Between 1950 and 1974 it was held by Enoch Powell, a cerebral right-winger whose jeremiads against immigration gave comfort to many, less cerebral, opponents of racial mixing. It was one of scores of urban seats that fell to Labour in the 1997 Blair landslide, forcing the Tories back into leafier heartlands. So Mr Uppal’s 2010 victory mattered. But it was narrow, by 691 votes. It was also rare.
There are now 11 black or Asian Tories in the House of Commons. Yet many occupy safe, largely white seats. Nationally, perhaps half a dozen Conservative MPs represent seats with sizeable ethnic-minority votes. Mr Uppal stands out as a non-white Tory MP with lots of non-white voters.
In Downing Street, that causes alarm. Aides have lists of urban or semi-urban seats that they think must be won to secure a majority. In many, the ethnic-minority vote is increasing. Yet “the number-one driver of not voting Conservative is not being white,” says a senior figure. It is an “existential” problem.
Last autumn the Runnymede Trust, a research body, published the largest-ever survey of British voting by ethnic background. In 2010, this showed, only 16% of ethnic minorities voted Conservative, compared with 37% of whites. Mr Cameron’s party did best among voters with Indian roots, of whom one in four voted Tory. It did best of all among Asians such as Mr Uppal whose families fled persecution in east Africa four decades ago.
But overall, Labour enjoyed a crushing dominance among ethnic-minority voters—even among British blacks and Asians whose affluence, or robust views on crime and public spending, might make them natural Conservative voters. Or even their views on immigration: in Tory-sponsored focus groups, researchers find minority voters frankly ferocious towards asylum seekers on benefits or eastern Europeans “stealing British jobs”.
Conservative strategists know that seemingly overlapping political beliefs can be trumped by deeper clashes of values. They have studied the cautionary tale of Republicans in America and their wooing of devout, family-minded, hard-working Hispanics (who are Republicans but “just don’t know it”, in the words of Ronald Reagan). In the 2004 presidential election some 40% of Hispanics voted for George Bush junior, a man with rather liberal views on immigration. That support collapsed when Republican policies took an angrily nativist turn.
Some clashes look similarly intractable for British Conservatives: disagreements with some Muslims over the threat posed by radical Islam, for instance, or with those blacks who tell researchers that the police are their enemy.
But Tory modernisers, notably from the 2010 intake, yearn for Mr Cameron to signal sympathy with the worries of black and Asian voters. Gavin Barwell, MP for racially diverse Croydon Central, in south London, wants the prime minister to make a speech repudiating the “cricket test” set by Norman Tebbit, a Thatcherite former cabinet minister who condemned migrants for cheering their ancestral homelands in matches against England. Identities are layered, argues Mr Barwell: people can be loyally British and proud of their roots. As it happens, Tory voters agree with him: 54% rejected the cricket test in a poll by British Future, a new think-tank that studies integration and identity.
Kris Hopkins, whose Yorkshire seat of Keighley has seen tensions between Kashmiris and the far-right British National Party (BNP), frets that anti-racist groups are dominated by the left. The Tory grassroots must voice louder disgust at the BNP, he urges.
Showing that you care is a good start
There is a striking consensus that the party could do better simply by appearing interested. Harrow East, in north London, is the Conservative seat with the largest ethnic-minority population. A Conservative activist there, Manji Kara, says he can bring Labour politicians to the Shree Kutch Satsang Swaminarayan Temple, a large Hindu shrine, with a “click of the fingers”. Tories are harder to persuade, he complains, though his Tory MP, Bob Blackman, is “improving”. Early-morning worshippers at the temple agree. “It’s Labour round here,” sighs a Tory-voting accountant, Pravina Pindoria. “That’s because Labour comes to our events.” Jyoti Patel, dropping her daughter at a temple nursery, asserts that Conservatives don’t follow the concerns of “non-white people”.
Mr Cameron gets it, says a senior Tory. A recent Downing Street summit on racism in football, called trivial by some commentators, was meant to signal that he cares about race relations. Such engagement must be sincere. It is no good MPs turning up at community events “looking at their watches”.
Not all Conservatives in safe seats get it, colleagues grumble. But Britain is changing. If Tories want to win elections, they will adapt. They have no choice.
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