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Paul Uppal MP: The long road to winning support from ethnic minority voters

Uppal PaulPaul Uppal is MP for Wolverhampton South-West. Follow Paul on Twitter.

As a Party, we need to address our underperformance in urban areas. Whilst much of it has been attributed to our image with working class inner city voters, a new study suggests that our results with ethnic minority voters has also played a significant role.

A recent major study, the Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES), published by the Runnymede Trust shows that at the 2010 General Election only 16 per cent of ethnic minorities voted Conservative. We must increase ethnic minority voting for the Conservative Party, if we are to win in urban areas and adapt to the changing face of Britain. In 2005, David Cameron’s first conference speech as leader highlighted this issue by saying what we need is “fundamental change ... that shows we're comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead".

This message is as true today as we sit in a coalition government and as we’re recovering from electoral defeat. If it wants to become a strong electoral force in this modern Britain, the Conservative Party must be willing to change and listen. Whilst Britain has changed over the past decade, the non-white British population has grown from 6.6 million in 2001 to 9.1 million in 2009 - or nearly one in six people - the Conservative Party has been too slow to adapt.

Whilst working harder to change the image of the Party - which too often is seen as one that only represents the rich - it is key to reach working class voters. It is noticeable that the Runnymede Trust study shows that class is not a major factor in voting behaviour of ethnic minorities. Data shows that they are likely to vote Labour regardless of their class.

It may seem that we have a mountain to climb, but I think we can be encouraged by what the Canadian Conservatives have achieved in transforming their success with BME voters. The Canadian Conservative Party achieved a landslide in 2011, whilst also significantly increasing their appeal to ‘new Canadians’. In 2000, the Liberal Party had a 60 point lead with ‘new Canadians’. At the 2011 election, the Canadian Conservative Party turned this around to take a 20 point lead with ‘new Canadian voters’. Whilst I acknowledge every country is different, I think we can be encouraged by their success and also learn some lessons.

I disagree with some who would say our message needs changing; the barrier is largely one of perception of the party. This is the barrier we need to break down before we can realistically expect to significantly change our electoral success amongst the BME population. Disappointingly, studies such as Lord Ashcroft’s ‘Degrees of separation’ have shown that one of the main drivers for not voting Conservative amongst BME communities is the perception that the Party is hostile towards black and ethnic minorities and does not care about them. I find this very disappointing, as this is not the Party I see today. Whilst we can’t change history and what has gone before, we can change perceptions. The Prime Minister has done a lot to revitalise and grow the modern Conservative Party.  It is clear that a lot more needs to be done to relay this to the voters.

If the Conservative Party isn’t engaging with BME voters, if councillors and MPs aren’t attending celebrations at the mosques or temples and visiting community initiatives, and if senior politicians aren’t recognising cultural events or being seen in the BME media, then this message will continue to not reach BME voters. Our absence allows Labour, in addition to other groups, to define us to BME communities, entrenching negative perceptions further. To change perceptions, we need to be engaged and visible from the grassroots to the top.

Better awareness and better engagement are key, but as Baroness Warsi has said, "We won’t win hearts and minds overnight".  This cannot just be a strategy for 2015, but a long term process that becomes part of our ethos. Superficial efforts near an election won’t change longstanding perceptions, and they might create cynicism about our motivations. It’s important we grasp the importance of this now and are consistent with delivering the change. This is not just a message to be taken on by BME MPs or candidates with marginal seats or seats with a high BME population. If our strategy is to be effective and to be lasting, it needs everyone from the Conservative Future, local Associations, MPs in safe seats and senior politicians.

What was demonstrated in Canada was a deliberate strategy to deliver on the issues that mattered to BME communities. Politicians went out into these communities, listened and then responded. In raising issues, such as the searching of Sikh turbans at airports and the theft of Asian jewellery, the Conservative Party can mimic the strategy employed by the Canadian Conservatives and deliver a message that resonates with BME communities in the UK.

If we can break through the barriers created by perception and history, I believe we will see success as our message is one that will resonate with many BME voters.  Whilst I certainly do not think BME voters can be seen as one homogenous group, many people from BME communities would be considered to be conservative in their values. As Katharine Birbalsingh wrote in The Daily Telegraph, “It is difficult to talk about ‘ethnic minorities’ since they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, classes, religions, interests and motivations. But there is one thing, more often than not, that they have in common: ethnic minorities tend to be conservative with a small C”.

Our message is not a difficult one, but perhaps we need to speak up our values more, rather than allowing Labour to flood our message as being one of unfairness’. At our core, we are a Party that stands for justice, personal responsibility, strong families and aspiration. Whilst tackling the deficit has rightly taken precedent since our election in the years leading up to 2015, we must ensure that we are talking up Conservative values and bringing policies that support and reflect them, ensuring voters feel they can identify with us.

Breaking down the barriers created by perception and history is a long term task. There is no single reason why BME communities are resistant to voting Conservative, and there is no single message or approach that will remedy this. The facts are simple though; without the increased support of BME communities, it is difficult to imagine a Conservative government, governing on its own.  With simple steps and a genuine commitment, I do believe this future is not inevitable. Once we have broken down these barriers, the rest is simple, be careful in our language and strong with our message.


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