Sajid Javid woke up this morning, turned on the radio and heard ConHome is hosting a fringe meeting at which “a turnout of over 1,000 people is expected”.
Yet at 10 a.m. when the Home Secretary reached Hall Six in the conference centre, it turned out to be far too small for an audience of this size, “so you have let me down already”.
Laughter. Javid has a light touch, and seemed completely relaxed before his own big platform speech at noon. There were, incidentally, a lot of people in the corridor who had hoped to be able to get in to hear him at this fringe meeting. Apologies to them. Next year a bigger hall will be hired.
The theme of the meeting how to broaden the party’s electoral appeal. Javid, whose own father arrived in this country from Pakistan with one pound in his pocket, began by telling a story which illustrates the huge problem the Conservatives still have winning over ethnic minority voters:
“When I was elected in 2010…my Dad was absolutely thrilled…He never thought when he came over from Pakistan one of his children would become a Member of Parliament.”
His father’s friends at the halal butchers and the mosque congratulated him. There was only one problem. As he told his son, “They all think you’re a Labour MP. When I say you’re Conservative, they’re absolutely shocked.”
Why was that, Sajid asked, to which his father replied: “I’ll sum it up in two words. Enoch Powell.”
“But that was years ago,” Sajid objected.
“They don’t forget,” his father replied.
So the party still has a deep-seated problem with ethnic minority voters, 70 per cent of whom voted Labour at the last election, and 50 per cent of whom say they wouldn’t ever consider voting Tory.
Javid said he has “thought about this a lot”. He knows ethnic minorities want the same things as other voters: jobs, opportunities, a good education, good health services.
But they do also have particular concerns: “Racism still does exist. I get a bit of it every day.” He said that one would find it if one looked at social media. The previous evening, at a Policy Exchange event, he had quoted, without self-pity, some repulsive insults which had been directed at him.
The Home Secretary touched next on “our biggest domestic policy challenge – the housing crisis”, with very high rents as well as prices denying millions of people any chance of ever owning their own homes. He favours new towns and garden villages as one way to make “a big impact quickly”.
Rachel Wolf, a founding partner of Public First and a member of both David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s policy unit, said she is worried the Tories are starting to take for granted “a vast swathe of working-class and lower-middle-class voters” in the Midlands and the North who are now open for the first time to voting Conservative, because of Brexit and the “wholly alien” nature of Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Conservatives, who are often quite posh, are in danger of talking down to these voters, sounding like “the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate”.
And Wolf also remarked that the Prime Minister had made a terrible mistake when she spoke of citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere: “it was such a stupid phrase”.
James Kanagasoorian of Onward, the joint hosts of the meeting, pointed out that at the last general election the party did quite well, getting 42.4 per cent of the vote, the best since 1983.
But when people ask him if the party has a problem with ethnic minority voters, young voters and women, he is inclined to reply: “I think they have a problem with us.”
He had just attended the British Asian Restaurant Awards. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats were there, but “I saw almost no Conservatives there talking in a natural way”, even though these restaurant owners voted Leave and are natural conservatives.
Kanagasoorian concluded that “the most important point” in wooing these voters “is to turn up and be present”.
Chris Philp MP, who served as Javid’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, recalled how horrible it had felt during the 2017 general election campaign to lose a 23 per cent lead in six weeks.
Philp “dislikes any kind of identity politics”, and believes the party should instead be inspired by and follow the example of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who “reached far out beyond their base”.