By Tim Montgomerie
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The Conservative Party is correctly making a big effort to build better relations with Britain's ethnic minority populations and Lord Ashcroft's research proves that it needs to do so. It is important to stress that they are populations (not one population) with different and overlapping concerns. I would be cautious about expecting big dividends from these efforts at the next election or even the one after that. The Conservative Party, like the US Republicans, needs to make a generational investment in our understanding and relations with the different BME communities. The challenge for the current Tory leadership will be to understand that they might be sowing seeds that will not produce a harvest for many years.
One of the ways into Britain's ethnic populations is to see many of them as people of faith. London's Churches, for example, are booming in part because of the huge strength of Black Majority fellowships. Few of these Churches are located in battleground seats but that doesn't mean their congregants do not live in target seats. It's also important to remember the generational point. We need to invest for the long-term, not just for 2015.
The Conservative Party has damaged relations with many of the country's churchgoers by promising to introduce gay marriage. Many of the more than half-a-million signatories to the Coalition for marriage petition are churchgoers. It's also been a big factor in a slump in Tory membership. MPs tell me that the issue is a top reason for why members are resigning.
The Conservative Party can't afford to lose core churchgoing voters and must make an effort to re-establish its credentials among them and among the Jewish, Muslim and other faith communities who have similar moral outlooks. Putting aside gay marriage for a moment the Conservative Party has a good story to tell to people of faith. Its support for faith schools, for example, its commitment to the aid budget and tighter enforcement of abortion laws are three very resonant issues. It needs to go further, however, in both policy and relationship-building.
In terms of policy I would suggest two main pushes:
- First of all we should remember the context in which Cameron first made his commitment to gay marriage – it was in the context of introducing a recognition of marriage in the tax system. I've already blogged on this topic but there's provision in the Coalition Agreement for a transferable tax allowance for married couples to be introduced on the back of Lib Dem MPs abstaining. A marriage tax break is popular, more pro-poor than raising the income tax threshold and would start to rebuild confidence amongst the churches.
- Secondly I would ask two MPs to take on two new faith-centred roles in Government:
- One would be responsible for ensuring that faith-based charities have fair access to government grants. Religious people, motivated by their faith, are often in the forefront of caring for some of society's neediest people but when they seek funding for their work they face discrimination. We need to think about how faith-based groups are treatly fairly by Whitehall, local government and quangoes at the same time that vulnerable clients are also protected from having religious views imposed upon them. My solution would focus on greater use of vouchers and also matched funding.
- Secondly we should appoint an Envoy for Religious Freedom. Mark Field MP wrote on Saturday about the real persecution that many Christians are facing because of the Arab Spring. Fighting for religious freedom abroad should become a central goal of British foreign policy. The Envoy would report to William Hague and future Foreign Secretaries on infringements of religious liberty in all parts of the world and they should lobby the guilty regimes. The Foreign Office working with Canada and the United States – who already focus on these topics – should constantly put related issues on the agenda of the UN, G8 and G20.
Policy is never enough without relationships, however. An occasional Downing Street garden party for churchleaders does not equal a relational strategy. In the continuing absence of a Department for External Relations, working with the Conservative Christian Fellowship the party should be identifying all of the movers and shakers within UK Christianity and keeping them constantly up-to-date with what the Government is doing and what they think the Government should be doing. There are plenty of MPs who are under-employed, even bored, who could help do this job well. The subject of bored MPs is a topic I will return to on another occasion.
Finally the party should revive the News for Churches newspaper. 300,000 copies of this were distributed at the 2001 election. This – and the supporting website – should be repeated in 2015. It should also communicate the party's big vision of a more compassionate conservatism. Again, a subject for another day.