James Kanagasooriam is an advisory board member of Onward and a strategy consultant at OC&C. Between 2014-2018, he was Head of Analytics for Populus, where he and his team utilised data science techniques to optimise political campaigning. Their efforts contributed to Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives’ successful 2017 Election.
There is no disguising it: the Conservative Party has a problem with Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) voters.
At last year’s General Election, 73 per cent of BAME voters opted for the Labour Party, compared to a paltry 19 per cent for the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party regressed from its high watermark in 2015, and huge numbers of black and ethnic minority voters who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 found their home in Corbyn’s Labour Party just seven years later.
2015 was an outlier from a trend of Labour voting that goes back decades. During the 1980s, the Labour Party regularly polled 90 per cent of black voters, and Conservatives only succeeded in winning a fraction of the British Indian-origin vote as late as 1987. The continuing challenge today is that the biggest statistical driver of not voting Conservative is being non-white.
This is despite many BAME voters aligning themselves to values of hard work, faith, patriotism, a scepticism of excessive welfare, and an uncompromising attitude of aspiration and household prudence. The BAME vote should be fertile ground for Conservative messages and policy, but it isn’t. Conservatives must ask ourselves why: it is not just philosophically damaging for the party of one nation politics but also electorally essential.
Senior party members are starting to take note of the issue because the political impact is no longer negligible. The BAME share of the population is at once growing, and as a voting segment turning away from the Conservatives. Over time, and without correction, this promises to create a massive problem for the party. As the chart below illustrates, 20 per cent of Britain’s younger generation in 2011, classed as those under 24 years old, were from an ethnic minority background. This was only the case for five per cent of those over 65.
Britain’s younger generations are more likely to be BAME, more likely to marry outside their ethnic group, more likely to be university educated, less likely to be married, more likely to rent, and less likely to be homeowners. In other words, younger people are less likely to carry all of the known characteristics of Conservative voters. The Conservative Party today is like an early 2000s retailer selling MP3 players, and wondering what could ever go wrong.
Digging into the numbers for the last election makes sobering reading for Conservatives. As the graph below indicates, when Indian voters are excluded (due to them not aligning with other ethnic groups in splitting heavily for Labour), if the BAME vote in a seat is over 30 per cent, the Tories basically can’t win the seat. That’s nearly 60 seats in England and Wales that the Conservatives are simply giving up – equivalent to the Conservative Party giving up on Scotland (59 seats). Thanks to the campaigning prowess of Ruth Davidson, this isn’t the case.
But what of the future? Is this state of affairs inevitable? Is the Conservative brand unrecoverable amongst BAME voters? And what happens if it is?
At Onward, the new campaigning thinktank on the centre-right, we have spent some time analysing what Britain’s changing demographics mean for the Conservative Party. The good news is that there is an enormous opportunity for the Conservative Party to win over significant numbers of BAME voters.
This is because Conservatives are much worse at converting people considering voting Blue into actual voters. As the graph below demonstrates, just 36 per cent of BAME considerers+supporters mark their cross for the Conservatives, compared to 70 per cent for White considerers+supporters. This suggests there is a considerable scope for improvement.
There is hope, too, from other countries. Canada’s Conservative Party, for example, won over a good proportion of BAME voters for much of the last decade, and in some years have outpolled the Liberal Party within these groups. And whilst it is true that across much of the Western world BAME voters tend to break for centre-left rather than centre-right parties, very few centre-right parties have as paltry a record as the Conservatives in the UK.
The Conservative Party’s incentive to improve share of the BAME vote is also overwhelming: without it, the Party will lose dozens of seats. Between 2010 and 2015, David Cameron managed to increase BAME vote share amongst BAME voters by seven percentage points just to stand still electorally.
Onward’s modelling of changing ethnic composition at constituency level reveals that if as predicted 20 per cent of the population is BAME by 2031, the Conservatives would have to either add two points of vote share amongst white voters from Labour or increase vote share by 12 points amongst amongst BAME voters from Labour.
The Party needs to therefore both pull votes from Labour amongst BAME voters and make further gains amongst white voters just to stand still, if society changes as expected over the coming years.
If you think that’s easy, it is worth remembering that Jeremy Corbyn increased support amongst white voters by 11 points in 2017, nearly double the six per cent point increase the Conservative Party managed amongst white voters. Furthermore, many of the Conservatives’ white UKIP-defectors do not identify as Conservative and are heavily conditional in their support.
But with the right approach, progress is possible, as other countries have shown and voter conversion statistics demonstrate. To achieve it, the Conservative Party first must begin to understand the different drivers of voting and political behaviours of different BAME groups. This is something at Onward we hope to delve into in future – it is simply not the case that British Indians are motivated by the same campaigns and policies as Britain’s Black African Caribbean community.
Second, the party should consider its tone and language of engagement, opting always for an inclusive manner and a message that emphasises values and experience shared. This must be true of the doorstep campaigner to the Cabinet Minister standing at the dispatch box: dissonance between the two can fatally undermine authenticity.
Third, Conservative candidates and representatives must engage minority communities at all times – not merely at religious festivals or during the run up to elections. It is the only way to build a meaningful campaign machinery to engage and mobilise the BAME activists and advocates who are so essential to conversion on the doorstep.
It was six years ago that Lord Ashcroft gave us the cold hard facts about the Conservatives and the BAME vote. Most BAME voters didn’t vote Tory, he found, because they thought the party was hostile to them, and not consonant with their ideas of fairness or their values. His table of drivers that prevent BAME voters from voting Conservative, set out below, is a standing reminder to the characterisation the Party needs to overturn and the ground that needs to be made up. Unfortunately, that verdict still stands, but it is better late than never to start addressing this pressing issue.