Binita Mehta-Parmar is Director of Modern Britain, a centre-right group exploring innovative thinking on a range of issues important to BME communities, from education to migration.
When I first joined the Conservative party in 2008, I understood I was a somewhat rare creature. At Party events, if you had a non-white face, you definitely stood out in the crowd.
At the time, we had just one brown and one black MP, and tiny numbers of councillors from ethnic minority communities. In most constituencies or wards where there were significant Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities, Conservative associations were at their weakest.
In short, for most BME voters, supporting the Tories was barely an option. How things have changed.
This week’s reshuffle was encouraging to those who – like me – want the country to see the modern face of our party. The Prime Minister said her new frontbench comprises a “new generation” of gifted ministers and “looks more like the country it serves”.
All the new black, Asian and minority ethnic appointments are an important step. But that is only part of what is needed if the Conservatives are to attract BME voters in greater numbers. We must now focus on two things: far greater engagement with the multitude of different minority groups; and implementing a range of policies that demonstrate the Party’s commitment to addressing the concerns of these voters.
If the Government is to deliver the Prime Minister’s ambition to tackle our society’s burning injustices, addressing some of the issues facing BME voters must surely be a vital priority.
Such a bold endeavour, for reasons of both principle and pragmatism, needs to be supplemented by a particular effort to reach out to the section of the population that has been historically most resistant to supporting the Conservatives: Britain’s diverse BME communities.
In fact, the Conservative Party has never succeeded in winning a significant proportion of Britain’s ethnic vote. Although we increased our share of Britain’s BME vote from 2005 to 2015, progress stalled in 2017. BME support is still less than half the figure for the rest of the population. The Party has been seen by BME voters, whether fairly or not, as being at best indifferent to their concerns.
The battle for BME votes matters: according to British Future, it was the ethnic minority vote gap which cost Theresa May her majority and Policy Exchange reports the ethnic minority population is expected to double to 25-30 per cent by 2050.
This makes is clear that Conservatives need a plan to broaden our minority appeal. Any mention of instead only focusing on “maximising the white vote”, as one Conservative MP put it to the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush this week, is foolish and wrong, as well as committing us to be ruled out of future electoral success.
Apart from merely widening our electoral appeal, the Party’s strategy must be consistent with our messaging about wanting to genuinely represent every part of our country. There are three aspects needed to deliver this: people, engagement, and policies.
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.
Nine BME MPs have been awarded posts this week, including: Sam Gyimah, the new Universities Minister; James Cleverly, new party Deputy Chair; Kemi Badenoch, Vice Chair; Rishi Sunak as Parliamentary Under Secretary for Housing; and others.
What remains to truly be realised are two things: an engagement strategy – deciding which groups can be won over most readily to the Conservative cause; and a political strategy – deciding which issues and policies are most likely to increase support.
Fortunately, there is a successful centre-right model that the party can look to for inspiration. In Canada, over a ten-year period, Canada’s Conservatives grew support among their own ethnic minority communities from 10 per cent to 40 per cent. This was, in part, achieved by a serious and long-term engagement programme, led by Jason Kenney MP, their Citizenship Minister.
Another key factor was the development of a raft of new policies that were electorally appealing, based on the understanding that there is not one single BME block of voters, but many different communities with diverse histories, attitudes and expectations.
So, what are the kinds of burning injustices that the new faces at the top of government must work to tackle?
First, more must also be done to help those BME communities whose academic achievements are consistently poor. The statistics on this are clear: Black Africans have the highest unemployment rate (18.3 per cent); 39 per centof Pakistani and 42 per cent of Bangladeshi women have never worked. In contrast, 43 per cent of Indians work in the highest skilled professions. Much of this failure to succeed is related to poor results at school for pupils from Black African, Caribbean and Pakistani communities.
Conservatives believe in a meritocracy, but it appears that talented BME employees are being held back by prejudice. The glass ceiling in the workplace appears to be blocking the progress of those from some ethnic minority communities who are hugely successful at school and university. Even where they have the same qualifications, a candidate for a job called James is far more likely to get an interview than someone called Jamal. Look around the boards of Britain’s biggest companies and you will find very few non-white faces. It is notable that there is much greater BME representation in many more agile companies, including the tech start up community.
The Conservatives acknowledging the extent of the problem is a vital first step. But then, in government, we need to develop solutions that incentivise private and public sector organisations to address this problem. Of course, the Prime Minister’s Race Audit goes some way to understanding this.
Third, particularly leading up to Brexit, is our Party’s determination to control our borders and sensibly limit the number of new migrants. For many migrants and non-white British citizens, all too often, this is portrayed as being hostile to anyone with a brown skin.
It is time to put that right. We have a unique opportunity to show to citizens of every colour and background that only the Conservatives have the right, balanced approach that benefits British citizens and newcomers alike. We need to show visible signs that the skilled and ambitious of the world will be welcomed with open arms post-Brexit – as Dan Hannan and others have advocated. In short, we can both control migrant numbers and attract the most talented from around the world.
The Conservatives cannot afford to simply ignore this problem – and not just because of the impact it has on has on our electoral success and BME citizens’ lives, but for what it says about the Conservative Government governing for all. We must seize the opportunity of a new top Tory team, refreshed with diverse talent, to prove genuine will to tackle deep injustices and disadvantages linked with race – what better way to signal the changing Conservative Party.