Gavin Barwell is Member of Parliament for
Croydon Central. Follow Gavin on Twitter.
I’ve written before for ConservativeHome both about the long-term existential threat to the Party from our low support among Britain’s growing black and minority ethnic communities and about what we could do to tackle this threat. On Saturday, I had the chance to speak about this challenge at one of the breakout sessions at ConservativeHome’s excellent Victory 2015 Conference.
I set out seven things we should be doing. But before I get on to them, I want to make two over-arching points.
Black and minority ethnic voters have the same concerns as everyone else. They’re worried about the cost of living, about jobs, about crime, about the quality of care in our National Health Service. Doing a good job in government will help to build our support among these voters just like any other group of voters. But both the Party’s internal polling and the published work by Lord Ashcroft show that this is unlikely to be enough on its own – many black and minority ethnic voters perceive our Party as at best not caring about them and at worst actively hostile to them. We need to address this ‘brand’ problem if we are to make significant progress.
Whilst I think it is essential that the Party addresses this problem, I am not advocating that it does so to the exclusion of everything else. It is also important that we win back seats from the Liberal Democrats and that we do better in parts of the North of England and Scotland. Building support among Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities is one of many things we need to do.
So having clarified these two points, how do we do it? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have seven suggestions.
- First and foremost, we need to convince these voters that we are not hostile or indifferent to them. We can all play a part in that, but the lead has to come from the top. I’d love the Prime Minister to give a speech about race in Britain today, about the problems we need to confront (both in relation to imperfect integration and the discrimination that too many still experience), but also about the huge contribution that people from minority communities are making to our economy, our public services and our national life. Will one speech really make a difference you ask? Not if it isn’t followed up, but when the Prime Minister of the country says something that directly affects you, you tend to notice. You’d be amazed how many of my black and minority ethnic constituents know that he delivered a speech in Munich in which he criticised multiculturalism (a word which means something very different to them than what it means to the Prime Minister). A speech which laid to rest any sense that we are uncomfortable with modern Britain, that showed that we understand concerns about discrimination in the labour market, about stop and search and have Conservative answers to these problems would give us a chance to re-set our relationship with Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities.
- Second, we need to understand the diversity of those communities. Too many people talk about “the black and minority ethnic community” when they are actually referring to many different distinct communities. We need to understand each community and its particular concerns.
- Third, we need policies to address those concerns. All voters care about the cost of living, about school standards, about tax, but if you’re Sikh how you are treated when you go through airport security matters, if you’re from a growing faith community the difficulty in getting planning permission to convert a former pub or office into a place of worship matters, if you’re black and at greater risk of needing an organ transplant the significantly lower chance of finding a successful match matters.
- Fourth, CCHQ need to make a much greater effort to build relations with the growing specialist black and minority ethnic media, both print and broadcast.
- Fifth, we need to make sure our Party looks like the communities we aspire to represent. This isn’t just about ethnicity, it’s also about gender, about socio-economic background. Whether we’re choosing a branch chairman or a Parliamentary candidate, we should always choose the right person, but is the field we are choosing from diverse? Do we as a party make an effort to go out into our community and encourage people to join, to stand as Conservative candidates or do we wait for people to come to us?
- Which leads me on to my sixth and most obvious point: we actually have to make the effort to engage with people. Do our MPs and councillors attend black and minority ethnic community events? Do they visit local small businessmen? Do they ask if they can hold surgeries at the local mosque or gurdwara? In short, are we taking the first step towards building a closer relationship?
- Finally – and possibly most controversially – we need to have a mechanism to target voters from particular communities. In some cases, this isn’t difficult – we can identify people via their surnames – but in others we may need to record information when canvassing. Then when our MP has spoken in the House about stop and search or when the Government has just announced additional aid for a particular country, we can communicate those facts to the relevant voters.
Seven ideas, none of them rocket science, about how to build support. I’d be interested in others’ thoughts. It was great to see so many attend the breakout sessions – an increasing number of people are recognising how important this issue is for the future of our Party.