James Cleverly is Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the London Assembly Member for Bexley and Bromley.
The headlines were interesting; “Prospering ethnic voters ‘set to switch to the Tories’” said the Mail, “Middle-class ethnic minority voters could help Tories win election” said the Telegraph and “Black middle class ‘drifting away’ from Labour” warned the BBC.
Whether these are the early tremors of a seismic shift in British politics or a storm in a teacup we don’t know – at least, until Friday, when the essay/report by Trevor Philips and UCL’s Professor Richard Webber, from which these reports were written, is released by Demos. I suspect it will be towards the latter end of the spectrum, since even the authors concede that the small sample size means their findings should be treated only as “indicative”.
I suspect that the report from a former Labour politician and produced by a left-leaning think tank is designed more as a warning to the Labour Party than a call to arms to us, but that shouldn’t mean that we ignore the the underlying message in the report.
Its a message which in many ways mirrors the findings of Lord Ashcroft’s earlier report Degrees of Separation, both show that there is a significant gap in the likelihood of voting Conservative between white and non-white voters in otherwise similar circumstances. As Lord Ashcroft highlighted, this is a gap that needs closing because demographic change is a fact of life: we either embrace it, or become an irrelevance.
If the Webber-Philips report is to be believed, this gap is closing in some, but only some circumstances, in that “second or third generation immigrants could lose their ‘reflex’ support for Labour when they move to traditionally white middle-class areas”. But even if we take the most optimistic interpretation of the findings, no one should think that all we need to do is sit back and wait for all the black and Asian families to move to the suburbs.
Although the headlines imply that this could be a game-changer for the 2015 elections, we should not be seduced into thinking that there is a short term easy win here. The factors underpinning the voting habits of various ethnic groups have been long in the making and will not change overnight, but if we don’t start to actively win over these voters now we will regret it in the future, as demographic change hits us in the ballot box.
As I said in my first political speech at the 2002 party conference in Bournemouth, the Conservatives and Britain’s ethnic communities have more in common than either thinks. My mother came to London from Sierra Leone in the early 1960s. She came here because she saw a country that rewarded hard work. She believed in the family; she and my Devon born father worked night and day to give me a good education; my dad built a business and we went from a one bedroom flat in Lewisham to a family house with a garden. These are the values shared by many ethnic minority families, and I said we should we should reach out and provide a political home to such self-reliant, hard- working, entrepreneurial people. Twelve years of missed opportunities later the advice remains the same.
There are no quick fixes; it takes time to build confidence. I speak to my friends and African family about being a Tory, and there is still a degree of mistrust. I’m not recommending that we contort ourselves or distort our message to appeal to different groups, its wrong and we don’t need to. We have a strong track record on support for entrepreneurs and small business, the importance of education, our commitment to family, and that self resilience and personal resilience should be rewarded. All these things sit comfortably with many ethnic minority voters and we should be confident in saying so.
A British Indian entrepreneur is just as affected and interested in our long term plan to cut Corporation Tax and encourage inward investment. A second generation African family is just as interested in our plan to reform education and raise standards, so their children can get better jobs and have the security of a good, regular pay packet. So when we talk about these things we should go out of our way to make sure they hear us.
We need to be proactive – it isn’t enough to say that our door is open to voters from all communities, we need to step through it and actively invite people in. I know many people within the Party feel uncomfortable targeting voters by ethnic background or other demographic trait, but we have form on this. The “It only leaves one thing for a woman to do” advert of 1979 was an unashamed pitch for female votes, and it worked.
We do not need a Labour party style Black Section or John Bercow’s idea for all-ethnic shortlists; what we do need is a long term commitment to keeping the Conservative party broad-based and open to all. We need to understand that winning over ethnic minority voters isn’t a “nice to have”, its essential for our long term political survival.
And we need to put in some hard work.