Binita Mehta-Parmar is Next Generation Director of Modern Britain, a centre-right group exploring innovative thinking on a range of issues important to BME communities, from education to migration.
In the opening weeks of this general election campaign, there has been much discussion of how Theresa May is attracting former UKIP and Labour voters – especially working class ones disillusioned with Labour’s shift leftward.
One of the electoral groups that has been most resistant to supporting the Conservatives in the past has been Black and Minority Ethnic voters. Even in 2015, the Party attracted only around one in five BME voters, while Labour hoovered up two thirds.
In the past, many BME voters have been deterred from supporting the Conservatives because of the hostility expressed towards migrants from a fringe minority of Tories, along with a lack of engagement by the Party with those communities. This was exacerbated by the lack of non-white faces among those standing for elections as Conservatives.
This is changing fast with significant numbers on BME MPs elected in 2015, and more candidates in winnable seats selected in the past few weeks. Critically, polling shows that many of Labour’s BME voters are backing that party more out of habit than because they necessarily support Labour policies. Indeed, there are signs that many BME Labour voters are beginning to feel that Labour has taken their votes for granted. With the right mix of policies, this election represents a unique opportunity to attract new BME voters, particularly from outside the Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese communities, where the Party has scored well recently, and seize seats we have overlooked for decades.
In 250 constituencies, the ethnic minority population exceeds the majority of the sitting MP. Importantly, there has also been a fall in the support for the Labour Party among BME voters: since 1997, the percentage of BME voters identifying with Labour has fallen, for example, from just under 80 per cent to 45 per cent for Indian-origin voters and to 58 per cent for those of Black African origin.
With growing appreciation of the electoral importance of BME voters, some progress has been made: the specific manifesto aimed at BME communities at the last election, and May’s move to set up an inquiry into how ethnic minorities are treated by public services as one of her first acts as Prime Minister, were important steps. So what kind of Conservative policies might also attract support from BME Britons? I suggest as follows:
- Ensuring better integration, with every citizen encouraged to integrate into British society not into separate communities. This should include increased funding for English language courses and holding citizenship ceremonies at high profile British sporting and cultural events.
- Improving education, with targeted help for the ‘left behind’ BME communities. For most migrants, particularly first generation migrants, making sure their children have the best possible start in life with a great education is their number one priority. For certain communities – Black Caribbean, Black African, Pakistani pupils are not seeing the dramatic improvements being achieved by others – Indian, Chinese, Bangladeshi. Specific Government help should be offered to encourage free schools and grammars in the areas where these communities live through work with community groups. Role models of successful BME entrepreneurs and business people should also be encouraged to inspire students.
- Helping to break the BME glass ceiling. For all the success of certain BME communities at school and university, this is not being reflected to the same degree in the workplace. The Government should work with public and private sector employers to identify the causes and find solutions. This should include monitoring and tackling the BME pay and unemployment gap, with focus on the racial youth unemployment disparity. Black Africans have the highest unemployment rate (18.3 per cent). 39 per cent of Pakistani and 42 per cent of Bangladeshi women have never worked. 24 per cent of Pakistani men are taxi drivers and half of all Bangladeshi men work in restaurants. In contrast, 43 perf cent of Indians work in the highest skilled professions.
- Working to rebuild public trust in the management of immigration and building a national consensus on the future of migration. Our Party’s determination to control our borders and sensibly limit the number of new migrants is often portrayed by the Left as demonstrating a hostility to all migration and migrants. We must avoid the kind of toxic rhetoric on immigrants and focus on demonstrating that we want to attract the right kind of migrants for the future that will help us to thrive economically. That means deciding which types of migrants Britain needs to attract: more engineers, PhD students and entrepreneurs – and fewer baristas and unskilled labourers. We should restrict low skill migration only for strictly limited sectors of the economy, where there is a real and demonstrable shortage of labour that cannot be filled, for example, by increased wages or capital investment. Simultaneously, we must tackle uncontrolled illegal immigration – those who don’t follow the rules others have and reduce low-skilled immigration. Such a balanced approach would help win over BME voters.
- A better asylum system with a new £600 million Immigration Mitigation Fund – or £2,000 per new migrant – that councils could bid for on a competitive basis to help cope with extra demand on local public services. This should operate in a similar way to the Government’s existing City Challenge programme for infrastructure spending.