In yesterday's Independent it was reported that David Cameron believes that the Tory Party faces an existential threat if it does not increase support among voters from minority communities.
In a two-part series of articles Gavin Barwell MP examines the nature of the challenge facing the Conservatives and, tomorrow, some possible solutions. Gavin is Tory MP for Croydon Central. Follow him on Twitter.
At the last General Election, more than two thirds of voters from Britain’s black and ethnic minority (BME) communities supported Labour; only 16% voted for us (source: Ethnic Minority British Election Study (PDF)). As Lord Ashcroft has observed, not being white was the single best predictor that somebody wouldn’t vote Conservative.
This wasn’t solely down to ethnicity. BME voters are more likely to live in safe Labour seats where there may not be an active Conservative Party and statistically they are over-represented in lower socio-economic groups, so you would expect them to be more likely to vote Labour. But the scale of the disparity should leave us in no doubt that ethnicity is a factor.
And as the recently released Census data shows, Britain’s BME communities make up a growing share of the electorate. People who classify themselves as ‘White British’ made up of 80% of the population of England and Wales in 2011, compared with 87% in 2001. And with BME communities having a younger age profile than the population as a whole, that trend is going to continue.
Taken together, these facts lead to only one conclusion: that if we don’t do something to increase our support among BME communities then in the medium to long term we won’t be able to win enough votes to get the majority Conservative Governments we all want to see. It’s that simple.
When I was advancing this argument on Twitter yesterday, I met with four responses.
First, “BME voters live in safe Labour areas so it doesn’t matter”. It’s certainly true, as I observed earlier, that BME voters are concentrated in such seats but there are significant – and increasing – BME communities in many marginal seats (including one very important south London marginal!) In the twenty of Labour’s one hundred most vulnerable seats that we failed to win in 2010, the average BME population was 15%; in the five that were in London, it was 28%.
But there’s also an issue of principle here. I am a ‘one nation’ Conservative. That’s a phrase that means different things to different people so I should explain what I mean by it. I don’t mean that we should be scarcely indistinguishable from Labour, lacking the confidence to offer Conservative solutions to our country’s problems. What I mean is that what makes me Conservative is that, unlike Labour, we are not a sectional interest that believes in setting one part of our country against another. We are a party for people of all backgrounds who share a belief in reward for hard work, in responsibility to others, in the importance of family. But we can’t truly be that party if we only draw our support from people who think of themselves as ‘White British’.
The second response was “We’d be better concentrating on sections of the electorate that are more likely to vote Conservative”. This is the blind alley down which the US Republicans have gone, focusing on an ever smaller section of the electorate until you finally realise that even if you do better than ever before among that section you still don’t win. And in any case, many BME voters have strong Conservative values – if we can deal with the historical reasons why they don’t vote Conservative, we could do very well as the Canadian Conservatives have done.
The third response was “Why this focus on BME voters? What about the white working class?” We need to both – and more (public sector workers, Scots, voters in Liberal Democrat held seats). It’s not a case of either/or – making it clear in everything we say and do that we are not just a party for wealthy, white people in the South will help us with all these voters.
And the final response was “This focus on particular groups of voters is all wrong. People care about the same thing. If we have the right policies, people of all backgrounds will vote for us”. It’s certainly true that at a macro level people of all backgrounds care about jobs, the NHS, crime, schools, the cost of living. And it’s obviously important that we get the policy mix right (and for what it’s worth, I am a big believer in Tim Montgomerie’s ‘politics of and’). But most people don’t decide how to vote based on a detailed analysis of each party’s policies – they vote for the party that they feel shares their values and cares about them.
We live in a country where most people share our values but many won’t vote for us because they don’t think we’re on their side. Our challenge is to change that perception. It is a challenge that we must rise to – for our Party’s sake and for our country’s.
(Tomorrow Gavin will set out some thoughts on what the Conservative Party needs to do next.)