David Cameron could have won an extra 500,000 votes and formed a majority government in 2010 if he had appealed to ethnic minority voters, according to new research published by Conservative Home and British Future ahead of today’s ‘Future Majority’ fringe. The new analysis shows how closing the “ethnic gap”, between the Conservatives’ appeal among non-white voters and their support across the electorate as whole, would have had a decisive impact on the outcome of a closely-fought General Election. Non-white Britons do vote Conservative – over 400,000 did so in 2010 – but less often than their fellow citizens. The Conservatives won 16 per cent of non-white votes in the General Election, only just ahead of the LibDems (14 per cent) and well behind Labour (68 per cent).
One in four voters from Indian backgrounds voted Conservative. A modest improvement, winning one-in-three non-white votes rather than one-in-six, would make a significant difference to Conservative electoral fortunes. After controlling for registration and turnout rates, the research projects that the Conservatives would have won 509,114 more votes in England alone in 2010 if they had closed the “ethnic gap” to secure 36 per cent of the minority vote.
Analysis of constituency demographics leads us to project that these voters would have won the Conservatives at least 24 more marginal seats from Labour. This would give David Cameron a clear overall majority of 12, allowing him to go straight to Downing Street without holding coalition negotiations with Nick Clegg.
The Tory narrow miss by 192 votes in Southampton Itchen would have become a majority of over 2500; while a Labour victory by 2400 in Southampton Test would have turned into a Conservative victory by 800 votes. There would have been five more Greater London gains – in Hampstead, Tooting, Westminster North, Eltham and Harrow West – but closing the ethnic gap would also have made a decisive difference in towns and cities around England, turning key seats blue in Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Dudley, Luton, Nottingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton. These missing minority votes would also have made the difference in less metropolitan seats, including Dagenham, Derby North, Great Grimsby, Telford and Halifax.The new research also looked further back at the 1992 election. It found that John Major would not have won if the election was re-run with the British electorate as it looks today, using demographics from the 2011 census. With a significantly-enlarged ethnic minority electorate, the “ethnic gap” in voting patterns would have cost the Conservatives at least 22 seats in 1992. This would leave John Major in a similar position to David Cameron in 2010 – seeking a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Demographic shifts would not just reverse the outcome in seats such as Brentford, Mitcham and Morden, and Birmingham Edgbaston, but would have cost the Conservatives seats they defended successfully in Bolton and Bury; Leeds and Luton; Slough and Southampton; and indeed in Corby, Chester and Norwich.
As a major new Oxford University Press study reports, the scale of this ethnic minority voting gap is not explained by class and income effects. The dominant factor is historic perceptions of the Conservative party among non-white voters. Many minority voters hesitate from voting blue even when their own views are closest to the Conservatives on taxation, the economy and social issues.
There is no reason for Conservatives to despair. Demography is never destiny in politics. What matters are the political choices that parties make. Bridging the ethnic gap to capture more minority votes offers a winning alternative to gloomy predictions of hung parliaments and years of coalition government. In the States, George W Bush was doing well with Hispanic voters – but the Republicans have gone backwards since. The Conservatives in Canada made rapid inroads, challenging the assumption that Canadian minority voters would always vote for their Liberal opponents.
Responding to this challenge and actively competing for the ethnic minority vote would not just be good for Conservatives but for UK politics as a whole. It is certainly bad for integration in Britain, and for non-white voters themselves, if one party believes they will always be ‘in the bag’ and another that they are out of reach.
The research offers a hypothetical “what could have been” scenario to Conservatives. It also offers an opportunity for the future. With pollsters predicting a tight electoral race in 2015, the so-called ‘minority vote’ is, increasingly, an important issue of electoral self-interest for a Conservative Party that wants to win an overall majority in Britain today.
Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
“Future Majority: Can the Conservatives win in a changing Britain?” takes place this morning in the ConservativeHomeMarquee from 10am-11.30am