Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future and co-author of Mind the gap: how the ethnic minority vote cost Theresa may her majority
The general election did not go to plan, certainly for the Prime Minister who called it. So the inquest into the lessons – and what might be done differently next time – will be a live debate, on the conference fringe at least. How the Conservatives might bridge the growing generational gulf in the 2017 vote will be one significant focus. Another perhaps related but so far underestimated theme – how to improve the party’s appeal to ethnic minority voters -will be explored by Sam Gyimah and ConHome’s Paul Goodman at a ConservativeHome fringe with British Future and Modern Britain on Tuesday morning.
Few will doubt that the Conservatives have room for improvement. The party was only half as likely to gain the support of non-white voters compared to their white British fellow citizens, according to Lord Ashcroft’s election day poll, which reported the party won 21 per cent of the ethnic minority vote, with Labour on 65 per cent. Ipsos-Mori put the gap even wider: 17 per cent to 73 per cent in 2017. The evidence base on ethnic minority voting remains, regrettably, thinner than for almost any other section of the British electorate, but every indicator to date points in the same direction: having made at least some gradual progress in 2015, the Conservatives went backwards with ethnic minority voters in 2017, while Labour renewed its strong support from black and Asian voters.
New research from British Future shows that the ethnic vote gap had a dramatic shape of the new Commons. If the Conservatives had closed the gap, winning 42 per cent of votes from ethnic minorities too, the research projects that the party would have won the General Election with a comfortable 42-seat majority. The politics of this Parliament and the position of the Prime Minister would be rather different in this parallel universe, in which the Conservative aspiration to be a One Nation party was realised by achieving a similar share of votes among ethnic minorities and the ethnic majority alike.
Even halving that ethnic vote gap could have made the difference between a minority and a majority government: a 32 per cent share of the ethnic minority vote would have made enough of a difference to secure ten more seats, taking May past the winning post without needing to wheel and deal with the DUP.
The Conservatives were caught by surprise in losing seats to Labour in 2017. The British Future analysis suggests that the ethnic voting gap was crucial in 17 of the 28 seats lost to Jeremy Corbyn’s party. There were seats across the country – from Keighley and Colne Valley in Yorkshire down to Bedford, Reading East and Portsmouth South – where the Labour lead among ethnic minorities was bigger than the party’s overall majority. As well as preventing those losses, a doubling of the Conservative ethnic minority vote would also have seen the party make 11 more gains – six from Labour and five more from the LibDems or the SNP – taking the party past the winning post in seats ranging from Dewsbury and Dudley North to Oxford West and Edinburgh South.
The Conservative Party now holds just five of the 75 most ethnically diverse Commons constituencies, having held 13 of those seats in the hung parliament of 2010. However, in Labour-held marginal seats in London – such as Ealing Central and Hampstead, where Labour majorities of under 1000 increased ten-fold – the Conservatives did so badly with voters across the board that Labour would have held these seats in 2017 even without its strong advantage among minority voters.
If the Conservatives are a long way behind Labour with ethnic minority voters, the silver lining for the party is that most ethnic minority voters do not rule out voting for the Conservatives. UKIP does have a toxic brand across ethnic minority Britain – three-quarters of ethnic minority voters are confident they would never support them – but attitudes to the Conservatives are considerably more nuanced. Part of the Conservative challenge in 2017 was that, in an election in which it was clear that many UKIP voters were switching to the Conservatives, the party did not put sufficient effort into reassuring other voters that it had not become the party of Nigel Farage.
47 per cent of ethnic minority voters do say they would ‘never’ vote Conservative – but that leaves half the ethnic minority electorate ready to hear competing offers. Fifty-six per cent of Scots also say they would never vote Conservative – but Ruth Davidson showed in 2017 how a party can make a significant advance if it does build a connection with those willing to give the Conservatives a hearing.
One-third of ethnic minority voters say they would always vote Labour. A similar proportion, however, say they voted Labour, but might change their minds in future. Almost a third say that they didn’t vote Conservative, but did consider supporting the party or could do so in the future.
Politicians, too, often responded to the challenge of reaching ethnic minority voters by thinking about how often they attend temples, mosques and gurdwaras. That type of symbolic outreach no doubt has its place in constituency campaigning, but it can also feel rather patronising, especially to younger British-born voters in their twenties and thirties who may not be impressed if politicians seem to see them primarily through the lens of their faith or their parents’ country of origin.
One-in-five first-time voters is not white. If a party is going backwards with young voters, with university graduates and with voters who live in the capital or other big cities, then it is going to struggle to advance with ethnic minority voters, who are a bigger proportion of each of those groups. The Conservatives are also less likely to make progress among voters who came to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, who have been voting Labour for decades. Strategically, the party needs to encourage a greater proportion of upwardly-mobile ethnic minority voters to shop around politically rather more than their parents and grandparents did. It will struggle to make that pitch if the party is struggling to get a hearing with voters until they are in their late thirties.
Being able to defuse a growing ‘generation gap’ in politics may be a necessary foundation for bridging the ‘ethnic gap’ in the Conservative vote. That is a project which requires attention well before Britain next goes to the polls. The 2017 election showed that that any party seeking a majority to govern today’s Britain will need to appeal to voters across our multi-ethnic society.