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Max Wind-Cowie is Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.  Follow Max on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 20.37.10In his excellent piece on the challenges faced by the Conservative Party, Sunder Katwala yesterday singled out the shifting ethnic character of Britain.  He observed, rightly, that "the
Conservatives received a wake-up call about the dangers of getting on
the wrong side of demographic change from the experience of their U.S
Republican cousins last year".

And this
transatlantic gloom is only reinforced when you look at polling here
in the UK.  Whereas 36 per cent of white Britons gave the Tory party their
vote, only 16 per cent of our black and minority ethnic (BME) population will.  As Britain becomes less
white over time – and it will – we can expect that imbalance to make it
more and more difficult for us to win majorities.

This
isn’t news.  Indeed, many conservative thinkers, politicians and
commentators have warned of the dangers of our disengagement from BME
Britain – including ConservativeHome’s own Tim Montgomerie and Paul Goodman.

There
are some common themes in many of the solutions that have been offered –
most of which I would echo. We need to be "in it to win it" – and
establish a presence in BME areas which shows us to be open and
interested.  We have to be emphasise commonalities between certain types
of BME voters and our traditional base – in particular, their shared
experience as small business-people and their common low-tax,
anti-spending instincts.  And we have to recognise that within the BME
population at large, and within particular demographic groups too, there is every bit as much diversity and difference as there may appear
to be between BME voters and White British voters.

The
truth is that patterns of aggregate behaviour, affected but not
determined by race and ethnicity, are never simple. They take a long
time to become clear and raise difficult questions.  This is every bit
as true in areas as complex and confusing as voting patterns as it is in
arguably more straightforward areas such as housing or health.  There
are, I believe, three key lessons that the Conservative Party must learn
if we are to resolve our difficulty with BME voters.

1) The fix will never be quick

This
series is about how the Conservative Party might win majorities once
more.  And I have some bad news.  If we’re only really interested in
2015, then a focus on ethnic minority voters is very unlikely to deliver
the goods.  As Trevor Phillips, former Chair of the EHRC and current
Chair of Demos’ work on integration, told me:

“The
views of BME voters of my age [towards the Conservative Party] were
shaped by traumatic events – such as the rise of Powellism – and are
really quite hard to shift.  The Conservative Party is unlikely to win
over even affluent people in that generation.”

Of
course it is good – morally, politically – that the Conservative Party
is not racist.  But it is true, I think, to say that no amount of
apology will transform the deeply-held, emotional suspicion felt by many
who believe they were let down by us in the 1960s, 70s and
80s. Furthermore, this is a group who – because of Labour’s more dynamic
and aggressive pursuit of anti-discrimination legislation – feel a
direct and personal debt of gratitude to the Labour Party. We won’t
change history and, there’s no point in trying. 

That’s
not to say that we should abandon BME voters and retreat to a White
core vote.  Because the longer-term looks more optimistic, and because 2015
will not be the last election we fight.

2) It’s no good just sucking up to vested interests

Sayeeda Warsi, former Conservative Co-Chair and current Minister for Faith Groups, is given to saying that BME voters "share our values but haven't traditionally voted Conservative".

This
theory – of a naturally conservative BME electorate who, for historic
or cultural reasons, are wedded to Labour – is an underlying assumption
in many of the conversations I have with Conservative activists and
MPs.  The problem with it is that, sometimes, the conservatism on
display in many BME communities jars with that of the modern, open
Conservative Party. 

Sometimes,
the approach of the elders of BME communities can feel almost like that
of old-school trade union barons. Individual liberty can sometimes be treated
as secondary to a set of collective rights; there can be an instinct to
close down debate within and between communities in favour of ‘unity’ –
diversity within groups can be ignored.

The Labour Party have often tacitly supported this set-up – and they have benefited from doing so. The
biradari
system, for example – in which community elders have effectively gifted
elections to Labour – has been rewarded by Labour Governments by the
turning of a blind eye and the allocation of funding in such a way as to
reinforce and entrench the influence of established "community
leaders".  For two reasons, this cannot be the Tory way.

First, it is a strategy of diminishing returns.  Bradford West and
Tower Hamlets – both areas in which the taken-for-granted BME vote
rebelled, delivering stinging defeats for Labour in their heartlands –
show that working via ‘elders’ is less of a guarantee than has been
assumed. 

Second,
this approach is wholly antithetical to our Party’s values.  In the
same way that in the 1980s we refused to acknowledge union barons as the
sole legitimate representatives of working class interests, so we must
not treat religious or community leaders as though they have some divine
right to speak on behalf of their own diverse groups.

Whilst
we do need to win over BME voters – particularly younger voters – we
mustn’t try to do so by pretending that we agree with the "leaders" of
particular communities and imitating Labour’s approach. We need an
authentically conservative take on dealing with multiculturalism and
diversity.

Support the outriders

So
what to do?  Well, I believe the Party should ally itself with
outriders within BME communities.  We should be side by side with people
like my friend Jasvinder Sanghera – who was recently rewarded for her
inspiring work with a CBE. Jasvinder has translated her own experiences
of "forced segregation" – as she puts it – into a life spent campaigning
for the rights of women in BME communities.  She isn’t asking her
community to give up on its culture and its heritage, but she is
demanding that they recognise the British way of life as their own and
that they respect the freedom of individuals to live lives that they
choose for themselves. 

Her
message is powerful and it fits much more comfortably into the
Conservative Party’s conception of society than does mimicry of the
clientism that has characterised Labour’s approach.

What’s
more, it strikes a chord with exactly the young, BME voters with whom
we stand a chance of connecting.  As the Economist pointed out in their
recent article Generation Boris,
across the board the UK’s younger population is charactertised by a
commitment to the kind of rugged individualism and aspiration that is
embodied by people like Jasvinder, and which is at the heart of modern
conservatism.

And
that leads us to some of the policies that might start to make a
difference in how we are perceived. The outriders in BME communities are
not only those who take a stand against particular practices. 

They
are also the people building a small business but who remain convinced
that banks discriminate against them on the basis of assumptions about
what it means to be an Asian shopkeeper.  They are the mothers desperate
for improvements to the local school, who would leap at the chance of
more targeted support to help them benefit from Gove’s ‘free-school
revolution’. They are people like Ray Lewis, taking a lonely but
fruitful stand against the rise in gang culture amongst the men and boys
they see around them – who would revel in a real ‘Big Society’ approach
that rewarded their success in undermining silence and aquiescence in
communities torn apart by violence.

Yesterday,
Sunder highlighted Boris Johnson’s successive victories in London as
evidence that the Conservative Party might be able to turn the tide of
BME antipathy.  He’s right to have done so. For Boris’ win demonstrated
exactly the kind of Toryism that can work in convincing young BME voters
to give us a chance.

Boris’
message for BME Londoners was about opening doors for people, ensuring
that barriers to entrepreneurship and success (be they self-imposed by
communities or created by lingering discrimination) are torn down and
promoting the positive ideals of integration and patriotism.  And it is
these themes that might, just, work in promoting our party to voters who
– at present – don’t really hear us. 

We
need to work with outriders, take our time and – at all costs – avoid
replicating the dangerous and failing strategy that Labour has pursued.

29 comments for: Max Wind-Cowie: We will win ethnic minority votes by backing outsiders – and learning from Boris