On ConHome yesterday Gavin Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, set out why the Conservative Party could not afford to ignore its lack of support among Britain's growing minority populations. Today he outlines some thinking on what we can do to deserve more support from BME voters.
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Yesterday I argued that if the Conservative Party
doesn’t increase its support among Britain’s black and minority ethnic (BME)
communities then in the medium to long term it will cease to be a party capable
of winning general elections.
I took a fair amount of abuse in the comments section,
but no-one actually challenged either of the building blocks of my case:
- the stark differential revealed by the Ethnic
Minority British Election Study between the voting behaviour of
people who classify themselves as white and people who classify themselves as
being from a BME background; and
- the evidence from the recently released 2011 Census
data that people from a BME background make up a growing share of the
electorate and that this trend is going to continue.
So what can we do to address this problem? Unlike my critics in the comments
section, I don’t claim to have all the answers but here are some thoughts.
First, we need to understand why we have historically
done so badly among BME voters when the polling suggests that on most issues
they are no less conservative than the electorate as a whole.
The standard explanation in yesterday’s comments was
that this Government isn’t Conservative enough. But we did similarly badly among BME voters when Margaret
Thatcher was Prime Minister. It
may well be true that a majority Conservative Government, free from the
constraints of coalition, would be able to pursue more electorally popular
policies but it’s nonsensical to blame the policies of this Government for our
historic poor performance among BME voters.
A more plausible explanation can be found in Lord
Ashcroft’s polling, which found that just 20% of British blacks and 36% of
British Asians (and only 29% of whites!) think the Conservative Party
understands minorities; and that 61% of British blacks and 46% of British
Asians think that Conservative policies have shown that they are hostile to
people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds (though on a positive
note 51% of British blacks and 56% of British Asians think we are changing for
We need to face up to the fact that we are in this
hole because of things we have said and done over the years – a perceived lack
of concern about discrimination, the failure to set up an inquiry into the
murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Tebbit cricket test, the language we’ve used in
the past when talking about immigration (note that this doesn’t mean we can’t
talk about immigration – contrary to what many in yesterday’s comments section
assume, many ethnic minorities voters are just as concerned as you are about
recent levels of immigration; the issue is what the language we use says about
our motivation in raising the issue – concern about population growth and the
impact on the work prospects of the unemployed or a hostility to foreigners
The first and most important thing we can do is to
acknowledge this in a high-profile way – say by the Prime Minister giving a
major speech on the issue – and seek to reset the relationship. Now, you may say “What difference is
one speech going to make to a deep-seated problem?” It’s certainly true that most of the day-to-day goings on in
the Westminster village have little impact on public opinion but occasionally a
politician says or does something that cuts through – the Prime Minister’s use
of the veto just over a year ago for example. I think there’s a good chance that such a speech would
achieve cut through, provided it is followed up as I suggest below. When a leading politician says
something about an issue that affects you directly you tend to take notice. A surprising number of my constituents
from a BME background know that the Prime Minister gave a speech last year in
which he attacked multiculturalism (which was a mistake by the way – not
because I support multiculturalism as we understand by the word, but because to
many of my constituents it means something different – anti-racism).
But as I say such a speech would only be of value if
we follow it up. So what else do
we need to do?
First, policy. As many of the people who commented yesterday rightly observed, whatever
our ethnic background we fundamentally care about the same things – jobs, the
cost of living, good healthcare, good schools for our children, crime. But individual communities have
particular concerns – the difficult in getting planning permission for new
places of worship, stop and search, discrimination in the job market, the
difficult people from Afro-Carribean backgrounds have in getting an organ
transplant) and at a micro level we need to have policies to address those
concerns, just as we have policies to address the concerns of other groups in
society (but not favouring one group at the expense of another).
Second, CCHQ needs to devote more effort to the BME media. We could, for example, be making much
more of policies that are good for the country as a whole but which will
particularly benefiting people from bme backgrounds – for example, Michael
Gove’s reforms that will ensure that our education system doesn’t let down
children from less well-off backgrounds.
Third, we need to make an effort at constituency level
– understand the communities in our seats (as Ken Stevens said, it is highly
misleading to refer to “the BME community” – we are actually talking about many
diverse communities), attend community events, work together on joint initiatives
(in Croydon, we’re promoting Sewa Day, an international day of volunteering,
that fits in very well with the Big Society agenda) and encourage people to get
involved in the Party.
Fourth, we need to ensure that our Party is
representative of the country we aspire to serve. We should always select people on merit but as some people
were kind enough to point out there are too many people like me in
Parliament. CCHQ needs to ensure
that it gives Associations a diverse pool of talent to choose from. We made good progress at the last
Election – people like Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Sam Gyimah and Alok Sharma are
making a big contribution to the Parliamentary Party – but there is more to
do. And this is emphatically not
just about ethnicity or gender – it’s also about having people from different
socio-economic backgrounds and different parts of the country.
And finally we need to be patient. We are not going to turn things round
overnight. As Yogi said, we have
to be prepared to stick at this, both nationally and on the ground, for a
number of years.
As I said, I
don’t pretend to have all the answers.
But let’s not pretend, in the face of all the polling evidence, that
this is just a matter of having the right policies and the voters will come.