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.
Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, strongly criticising immigration, was delivered on 20 April 1968, significantly impacting public perceptions of our Party. It deeply saddens me to say that his legacy lives on almost 50 years later. This week a Conservative leaflet was published expressing insensitive, intolerant and divisive messages on immigration.
The message, published as part of an In Touch by Havering Conservative Councillors, warned residents that a Labour victory would put Havering in danger of resembling other London boroughs like Hackney, Newham and Barking “rather than a traditional part of Essex”. This insinuation is obvious and, as Sunder Katwala of British Future puts it, creates new, unfortunate baggage for a party which already has a reputational issue around immigration and ethnic minorities. (The leaflet has since been withdrawn, at the instigation of CCHQ.)
This kind of message undoes our considerable strides forward in the last half century and undermines efforts of people like Sam Gyimah, James Cleverly, and Sajid Javid, who have done much to show that our party is for everyone.
The Conservatives have always sought to be a party for all, rather than seeking to represent particular sectional interest groups. In recent elections, we have made progress in beginning to shift public perceptions among ethnic minority voters. As a young Asian woman from a Labour background, I am acutely aware of this. Convincing those who assume the Tories are not for them is key to us regaining a majority government when the time comes.
However, this Havering leaflet conveys exactly the wrong message and will be used by our political opponents to demonstrate that we are willing to use race to win votes. At first glance at the badly designed and unclear leaflet, you may not take in the message. However, in reading the right hand column, in which white men say Sadiq Khan puts Havering “in danger”, “will change Romford for good” and will “become like an inner city area” with “massive population increases from London”, the underlying message is clear.
What does this message say for our Conservative colleagues knocking on doors in Barking and Hackney trying to convince people to vote for us? In Watford, too, where I am standing in the local elections, these messages have consequences.
Diversity is not an “inner city” issue. Indeed Policy Exchange reports that the UK ethnic minority population is expected to double to 25-30 per cent by 2050. Furthermore, BME voters are moving to marginal constituencies: at the next General Election, target seats for both of the main parties are predicted to have ethnic minority populations of over 20 per cent. In some seats, such as Harrow West, that proportion is above 50 per cent.
BME votes matter increasingly to our party: according to British Future, it was the ethnic minority vote gap which cost Theresa May her majority in last year’s General Election. This kind of message therefore turns off voters nationally, from the cities to the suburbs.
It is also not just about elections; it is about our fundamental beliefs. It would be easy for me to decide not to comment about the campaigning of fellow Conservative candidates in the run up to an election. However, some issues go above party allegiance. To quote the late Jo Cox, we have more in common than that which divides us, and divisive language doesn’t chime with modern Britain.
This incident, denounced by Daniel Finkelstein, Nick Boles, and Chuka Umunna, is a stark reminder that politicians must take all voters seriously but be careful not patronise any. It is all too easy to make mis-steps that can offend or cause ridicule, like Jeremy Corbyn’s tweet claiming that “Only Labour can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people”. But we must step up when criticising our own side, just as we have rightfully called out the despicable cases of anti-semitism within the Labour Party. Parties cannot afford to simply ignore this problem — not just because of the impact it has on BME citizens’ lives, but for what it says about governing for all.