By Paul Goodman
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The dismal illustration above is taken from the biggest-ever study of the attitude of ethnic and religious minorities to the Conservative Party – Degrees of separation, commissioned by Lord Ashcroft and published today.
It is a word cloud of associations the party's brand provoked when tested on those who took part in this study. I read the report yesterday both to read it for itself and to test it against my view on these matters, as previously set out on this site. My fourfold take is:
- The ethnic minority vote threatens the Conservatives with demographic decline. Only 16 per cent of all ethnic minority voters supported the party in 2010. They are more resistant to voting Tory than the white majority. Ethnic minority votes made up under one in ten of the population in 2001. By 2050 ethnic minorities will make up a fifth of the population.
- The party leadership has traditionally reacted to the challenge with tokenism and ignorance. It has assumed that this resistance can be broken down by a few appointments near the top. By getting policy right. By assuming that all ethnic and religious groups are essentially the same – and that what may work for one may work for all.
- There is no substitute for hard work from the bottom up. By all means work on policy, and appoint more ethnic minority members to the top table – if like others they have the capability. But there is no substitute for a party presence on the ground, in the cities and suburbs where such voters are most likely to be found.
- Target the groups that are most receptive to the Conservative message. The party has a moral responsibility to take its message to all Britons. But making a special pitch to those more likely to be won over applies as much here as elsewhere. For example, Britons of Indian origin are more likely to vote Tory than those of Pakistani origin.
In particular, I have argued that the party must end its war on multiculturalism – by which I mean not the struggle against separatism or moral relativism (which is essential), but the use of the word "multiculturalism" to describe it.
This is because in my view the word "multi-cultural" to ethnic minorities – and others – is heard as "multi-racial": in other words, when Conservatives attack the multicultural society they are simply believed to be attacking the multi-racial society – signalling that ethnic minorities aren't welcome.
How does does all this look in the light of Lord Ashcroft's research? Degrees of Separation is a study of attitudes rather an a blueprint for strategy. But it does cast light on how deep resistance to voting Conservative is. He concludes in an article in today's Sunday Telegraph:
"The Tories' reputation among ethnic-minority voters will not change overnight. First, the party must understand the anxieties and aspirations of people from these backgrounds – and that many do not believe Tory principles extend to the concern for others that are an essential part of their own religious and cultural identity. Otherwise, it will continue to be seen as a party of middle-class white people which talks only to other middle-class white people…At the moment, as far as ethnic minorities are concerned, the trouble with the Tories is that they keep themselves to themselves."
Here are ten quotes from the report that caught my eye:
- "In the twenty of Labour’s one hundred most vulnerable marginals that the Tories failed to win, the average non-white population was over 15 per cent. In the five of those that were in London, the average non-white population was 28 per cent. Bluntly, the Conservative Party’s problem with ethnic minority voters is costing it seats."
- "The political outlook of large numbers of ethnic minority voters is closely connected to class identity…Their parents or grandparents came to Britain to do working class jobs, lived in working class areas, and often joined unions, so Labour was their party. Most of our participants still thought of themselves as working class, including those with professional careers. Labour had always been the party for people like them – a status it largely retained – but the Conservatives had always been for the better off middle classes."
- "However, by polling white voters alongside those from ethnic minorities, we demonstrated that the Conservative Party’s unpopularity among black and Asian voters is not simply a matter of class and geography…Among ethnic minority voters the Conservatives’ brand problem exists in a more intense form."
- "Enoch Powell was often mentioned in evidence, as was the notorious Smethwick election campaign of 1964 in which a poster appeared – not distributed by the Conservatives, but remembered as such – saying “if you want a n****r for a neighbour vote Labour”. The failure, on the Conservatives’ watch, properly to investigate the murder of Stephen Lawrence was also cited."
- "We found that multiculturalism was unequivocally regarded as a good thing. There was no clear or consistent definition of the word – for many, it simply amounted to the technical term for the welcome presence in Britain of people like them. A speech that David Cameron made at last year’s Munich Security Conference, which was reported as criticising multiculturalism, was raised spontaneously by several participants, usually those from an Asian background."
- "The fact that the Conservatives seem to have very few MPs or spokesmen from ethnic minorities was often mentioned as evidence that the party was not engaged in their communities. However, the issue was far from straightforward. Many of our participants could not imagine anyone from their background – culturally and, especially, economically – becoming a Tory candidate."
- "The problem is that what many in these communities mean when they think about these things ["Family, community, enterprise (especially small business) and the desire to get on in life] may not necessarily match what they think the Conservative Party means when it thinks about them. Principled encouragement for family life and the institution of marriage, for example, is all very well – but our participants were more likely to think Labour had done more to support families, through tangible things like tax credits. On this score, the Tories now seemed to be eroding support for families, not strengthening it."
- "Despite the overall gloom, the research yielded some encouraging nuggets. More than half of ethnic minority respondents – including two thirds of Hindus and Sikhs – thought “the Conservative Party used to be hostile or indifferent to people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, but the party is changing for the better”.
- "The Tories, and indeed any organisation, must take care not to treat ethnic minority voters as an homogenous group, let alone one to be condescended to. Conservatives should continue to talk about the values of responsibility and enterprise, self-reliance and hard work, but in a way that connects its policies to an understanding of how people from these different backgrounds live their lives, their anxieties and aspirations."
- "There was a widely held view, in contrast to that usually found in focus group discussions among voters in general, that the coalition had made immigration laws significantly tougher since the election. Many regarded this as a good thing, even if their own families or organisations had been affected, and some thought that if anything the rules should be even stricter."
In short, the report suggests that changing this resistance will take time. That appointing ethnic minority members to senior posts is not a panacea. That pushing Tory themes – such as support for marriage and lower taxes – isn't one either. That the "war on multiculturalism" should end.
All this seems very close to my fourfold take above. Lord Ashcroft's findings suggest that I may have over-estimated support for classic Conservative approaches to tax, schools and families policy – but that a tough immigration policy isn't in itself a problem. I end with seven more quotes:
- "In the poll, just over half of ethnic minority voters overall – but two thirds of Hindus and Sikhs – agreed that the Conservatives used to be hostile or indifferent to people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, but was changing for the better."
- "Sikhs and Hindus in particular spontaneously said they disliked the tendency to “put people in boxes” in the name of diversity."
- "There was a wide spectrum of opinion on the extent to which black candidates or those from an Asian background faced discrimination in the job market. Some – mostly Hindus and Sikhs – felt that there were few if any remaining barriers of this kind, and that they or their children would compete on an equal basis with white candidates who had the same qualifications."
- "For Hindu, Jewish and Sikh voters (of whom half were Hindu, 30% Sikh and 20% Jewish), work sector was the best predictor of hostility to the Conservatives…Indeed, it is worth noting that in this exercise, looking at the eight demographic factors listed above, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs working in the private sector were the least hostile to the Conservative Party of any group, including private sector white Christians.
- "Only 17.95% of this group [religious believers] who identified themselves as Christian or Hindu said they would never vote Conservative, compared to 27.17% of the mainly Muslim and Sikh segment."
- For Hindu voters, the most important factors [in saying "I would never vote Conservative"] were similar to those of non-white respondents as a whole – though their views of Labour played a more important role overall.
- "The perception that the Conservatives do not seem to have any members or voters from different ethnic or religious backgrounds was a more important factor for Sikh respondents than for any other group."
I think you can see where all this is heading. According to the last census, 2.7% of the UK's population was Muslim, 1.0 Hindu and 0.6 Sikh. (These figures are over ten years old.) I don't have a table for how they break down in terms of marginal seats.
But its evident both from the thrust of Lord Ashcroft's report and from polling commissioned by the Runnymede Trust that Indian-origin voters – especially Hindus – are more receptive to the Conservatives than other ethnic and religious minorities.
Very simply, the party has been over-focused on Muslims. As I wrote earlier, having members of ethnic minorities at the top table is no panacea, but as a reshuffle approaches the leadership should be weighing the merits of the party's four Indian-origin MPs.
These are Priti Patel (seen by ConservativeHome readers as a future party leader) Alok Sharma, Shailesh Vara (a former Party Vice-Chairman) and Paul Uppal.
The whole of Lord Ashcroft's report can be found in full here.