Rishi Sunak is Head of Policy Exchange’s new Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Research Unit.
The editor of this very website said it best: “it would be ignorant, patronising and inaccurate to treat” ethnic minorities as a “single, undifferentiated lump”. The Conservative Party has a golden opportunity to broaden its appeal by understanding the significant differences between, and often within, these increasingly important communities.
This coincides with the publication of a new report by Policy Exchange, A Portrait of Modern Britain, which shows that there are clear and meaningful differences between each of the main Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities in the UK, which need to be fully understood by policymakers and politicians.
Clearly, it is not the case that Britain’s minority communities live similar lives or hold similar views and aspirations. Yet politicians, campaigners and commentators persist in assuming they can appeal to all minorities in similar fashion. Of course, the things that unite all Britons, regardless of ethnicity, are more profound than the differences. However, there are striking distinctions that are worth understanding.
People from minority backgrounds are likely to make up a third of the population by 2050 – their electoral significance is only increasing. The successful political party will move away from outdated generalisations and develop a sophisticated understanding of “who exactly are Britain’s BME communities?”. With this improved understanding the Conservatives will be well placed to address minority needs, engage deeply, and ultimately win more support.
This is not a simple task. There are at least five major distinct BME groups in the UK today: Indian, Pakistani, Black African, Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi. Smaller communities include the Chinese and Sikhs. A very fast growing minority group is the Mixed population, which now is the second largest minority group in the UK. In this context, it was fitting that Jessica Ennis became the face of Britain’s Olympic success.
Research shows these communities are strikingly different on almost any dimension: educational attainment, geography, household composition, religious activity, mobility, political beliefs or economic activity. Once political parties understand these differences, they are better placed to find areas where their existing policies and values will have most resonance and can target their message. Currently, even this simple opportunity is often missed. And by deeply understanding particular communities it will also be possible to address specific needs in ways that are beneficial for the country as a whole.
If the Church is the “Tory party at prayer” why can’t Tories find ways to engage with the largely Christian Black Caribbean community who are the minority group with highest weekly religious attendance (57 per cent compared to 10 per cent of the White population)? The Conservatives are champions of home ownership, which ought to be a strong way to connect with the Indian and Pakistani communities. They have home ownership levels similar if not higher than the White population and are likely keenly aware of changes in mortgage rates, stamp duty and Help/Right to Buy.
Education has been a hallmark of this government’s reform program. It is a powerful Conservative aim: to provide all children with a high quality education, regardless of where they live or where they are from. Maybe this is the message to take to Bangladeshi community. Just a few years ago, Bangladeshis had poor GCSE attainment with only 40 per cent achieving five good grades. But in a short space of time they have improved this by a stunning 50 per cent and now outperform almost all other minority groups. This improvement came in spite of large numbers of Bangldeshi students being eligible for free school meals. The Conservatives can draw a persuasive link between their education program and the life-changing benefits that it is bringing to this community’s next generation.
Similarly, the Sikh community has been very active in establishing Sikh free schools which appear to be inclusive in their approach and are becoming strong institutions in their communities, deeply valued by local Sikhs. As Sikhs look to see if Conservatives understand their community and share their values, what better example for the Party to have?
Research shows that minorities cluster disproportionately in particular industries. This is helpful for policy makers as small changes in one sector can be felt across an entire community. Almost 25 per cent of Pakistani men works as taxi drivers and almost 50 per cent of Banglaeshi men work in the restaurant industry – as the party of small business, are the Conservatives engaging with these communities using this approach? Similarly, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are very likely to work either part time or be self-employed. What do Conservatives have to offer around flexible employment laws for these types of workers?
Conservatives are above all associated with the nation, and keeping it together. So they will be heartened to see one thing minorities do have in common – their commitment to the idea of “British-ness”. Almost all ethnic communities have a much stronger notion commitment to the notion of “British-ness” than their White peers and feel it is an important part of their identity. So as we commemorate the centenary of World War 1, what a perfect time to celebrate the contribution of the hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who fought bravely alongside British troops and gave their lives.
Almost across the spectrum of existing Conservative values and policies there are ways to connect with different groups of minority voters. The key is to understand those differences. If the Conservative Party can start to do that well, it will find that doors open, people become receptive, and supporters arrive.
Policy Exchange’s report, A Portrait of Modern Britain, is published today