Andrew Marshall is Managing Director of Cognito Media and a Camden Conservative Councillor.
I did some telling on polling day, along with a lot of knocking up. My two colleagues and I were safely returned again for Swiss Cottage ward, Camden, though with Labour a good deal closer than before.
I did notice one thing while telling which surprised me. It’s purely anecdotal, and I offer simply for discussion. I saw several young couples, often with young children, with Labour knock-up leaflets in their hands as they arrived to vote. They looked like they weren’t so sure of the polling station procedure, and when I asked them for their polling card number, they had Eastern European accents. To be clear – I’m in favour of free movement of labour across the EU (a Conservative policy from the 1980s onwards), and think London is hugely enriched by immigrants and always has been. But it’s obvious that as a party we need to appeal more systematically to these new EU voters and other immigrants. Some of them no doubt only have the right to vote in EU and local elections, important though these elections are. Others over time will increasingly have the right to vote in general elections.
Given the low level of apparent interest you get from most EU citizens and other immigrants when canvassing, I’d rather imagined, with all my typical metropolitan prejudices, that such voters really didn’t turn out much in the locals/Euros. Many of them don’t, but clearly some are listening and taking part in the politics of the place where they live – and why wouldn’t they? Four years on from the last general election, the combo of Euro and local elections did make it feel more like a big election.
So why would such Central/Eastern European voters, earning perhaps £18-22K in manual jobs and living in private rented or social housing in inner London, not be voting Conservative? Well, just maybe they didn’t like the tone of our very negative message on immigration. Fine distinctions – between seeking to limit numbers and welcoming the immigrants who are here – get easily lost. The general sense from the media is that our party is “anti-European” which can be seen as “anti-immigrant”.
But economic and social policies are probably as important. As Tim Montgomerie said at the ConHome conference, we simply don’t communicate what we actually have to offer voters on low wages in London – we sound like a hyper-capitalist party for the successful, even if we don’t spend like one in government. Leaflets on cutting council tax and the threat of the mansion tax don’t exactly reach out to such voters.
Strikingly, Lord Ashcroft’s marginal poll showed that in Hampstead & Kilburn (the northern half of Camden) we are at 16 per cent with C2 voters and just 12 per cent with DE voters. Education should be a winner for us, but we just don’t look like we have anything to offer such new immigrant voters, or indeed that we really want them to take part in political life here.
Arguably the cohort of Eastern Europeans who choose to stay and bring up families here are now at the tipping point in terms of their underlying British political orientation. We know that once fixed, political orientation can have a long shelf life. Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s formed a view of the Conservative party that persists today, as did Bengali immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s. As has been written before on this site, unless our share of ethnic minority voters goes up, we will be doomed by demography, and we seem in danger of losing these new immigrants as well.
I don’t pretend that, with limited manpower and in a low turnout election, our local team made any very effective outreach efforts with Eastern European voters. We have always dealt well with a fair number of immigrants in our ward casework (often from the former Yugoslavia). But in a difficult election we were frankly focused on pulling out our older, long-established middle class voters where we had Voting Intention data (bizarrely, UKIP didn’t put up a candidate against me and my colleagues). But that’s not going to be good enough in a high turnout election. We need Polish, Romanian, Kosovan activists and council candidates over the next five years, and Labour is already on the case.
This is perhaps principally a London issue, though no doubt some Eastern Europeans are starting to vote around the country. And even though Matthew Parris is right that people’s lives have not been significantly affected by immigrants, there is also a need for talking about community cohesion in a way that reassures many of those we’ve lost temporarily to UKIP. Engaging immigrant voters and winning back UKIP voters simultaneously is not going to be easy.
Comments and advice welcome.