Basit Mahmood works in public policy research and events. He is also Chairman of Conservative Future, Luton.
This month marked the AGM of the Luton Conservative Association. It may not have much significance for those beyond the confines of the local party, but what was different this year was the sizable makeup of the membership – with many young BME members, a point commended by Robert Halfon, who was the guest of honour.
Indeed, this is a wider point that is being celebrated not only in Luton, but by Conservatives across the country. There has never been a greater opportunity for a Conservative Government to break, once and for all, the Labour Party’s hold over those who feel let down by a party that has repeatedly taken them for granted, demonstrated utter complacency and delivered very little by way of tangible results.
Simply relying on anti-Conservative sentiment from previous decades and assuming that this sentiments would be passed on from one generation to the next has proved harmful to those whose interests the Left claims to serve. The Conservative Party has begun presenting itself as a positive alternative to those who feel disenchanted and let down, finally tackling the monopoly of the left over BME issues. Yet more must be done to dispel the myths and falsehoods that have for so long allowed the left to maintain a monopoly over BME communities.
For first generation immigrants who arrived in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s the memory of Enoch Powell and the Conservative Party’s stance towards immigration has remained a vivid picture. Ever since, the Labour Party has been viewed as the party which protects minority interests, in contrast to the Conservatives. This image has survived to the present – and even been passed on to second and third generation ethnic minority voters.
For years growing up in a town with a significant BME population, I have heard false arguments repeated constantly about the Conservative Party – drilled into people’s minds. ‘The Conservative Party is the Party of the rich; ‘it’s the Party for the white, middle and upper classes’, one Labour canvasser even told my mother in Urdu, ‘they’ll start to charge you for the NHS if they win’. Only Labour, I was told, sticks up for the interests of immigrants and their future generations.
It is these myths, combined with decades-old sentiments, that have served to maintain the Labour Party’s hold on BME communities. Having joined the local Conservative Party at 16, I noticed that the most frustrating task for the committed party activists and campaigners was tackling misconceptions. Time and again, ethnic minority voters would tell candidates and canvassers such as myself: ‘I wouldn’t mind voting for you as an individual, but I can’t vote for a Party that hasn’t got our interests at heart – we don’t have anything in common with them’.
Despite Labour’s claim to be a natural home for BME voters, there has been very little by the way of increased opportunity. Last year, a report published by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity found that although levels of educational attainment have improved significantly for ethnic minorities, this progress has not translated into improved outcomes in the labour market. From personal experience, I recall friends questioning whether job applications had been rejected due to their background. There was a sense of double standards and resignation; there was no real alternative that they could see. For far too long, Conservatives have allowed the Left a monopoly over championing issues on inequality and discrimination, and for this we have only ourselves to blame.
There is no doubt, however, that the Conservative Party has made considerable gains in attracting BME voters. Not only were seats won made at the last election, with research by British Future suggesting that one in three BME voters voted Conservative, the party’s best result to date, but we also have seven new BME MPs, compared to Labour’s eight. David Cameron’s speech to the last Party Conference placed particular emphasis on inequality, highlighting discrimination when it came to applying for jobs and ill-treatment at the hands of the police, this striking a chord with many BME voters.
In Luton, for example, a town with a significant BME vote that is viewed as a traditional Labour stronghold we have begun to notice a real difference. The Conservative Future branch has increased its membership threefold in the past few weeks, with gains made at local elections. None the less, it is not simply enough to highlight such issues. What we need now is real action which builds on this success and makes a difference to individual’s lives. The Labour Party still has a strong hold on BME voters, evidenced by increased majorities in the most diverse seats at the last election. In many of these seats the Labour vote share is more than 50 per cent, rising to over 70 per cent in a few such constituencies. In 2020 and beyond, the BME vote will continue to increase in the Top 100 or so very diverse seats: there is much to do.
To begin with, we should stop engaging with community leaders, and engage with BME voters directly. Although respect for tradition and ones elders remains an important value in many BME communities, younger voters are increasingly asserting their own independence when it comes to political choices. At present many are apathetic, and turnout amongst BME voters remains very low, especially amongst 18-24 year olds. By showing that we understand their concerns about a lack of equal opportunity and by working towards removing these barriers and continually highlighting this point, just as our opponents have done, we can make a crucial difference.
In addition, though the party has begun to tackle many of the misconceptions head-on, this needs to become more of a continuous message and must be championed repeatedly across all levels of the Party. This will not only tackle the misconceptions about the Party on a national level, but will come as welcome support to those activists at a local level. Irrespective of who wins the race to replace Cameron, the inroads that have been made must be built on further.
According to research by Maria Sobolewska, the percentage of Pakistani voters identifying with Labour fell from 79 to 54 per cent between 1997 and 2014; the percentage of African voters identifying with Labour fell from 79 to 59, and the percentage of Indian voters identifying with Labour fell from 77 to 45 per cent, yet we have not been able to further capitalise on this. The solution lies in offering an alternative to those who feel let down by a complacent party: Scotland and the SNP serve as an example of this. Our alternative is being offered, it is yielding positive results; we must build on it and guard against complacency.