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Gavin Barwell MP: What can Conservatives do to increase our support among black and minority ethnic communities?

6a00d83451b31c69e2017c3513070c970b-150wiOn ConHome yesterday Gavin Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, set out why the Conservative Party could not afford to ignore its lack of support among Britain's growing minority populations. Today he outlines some thinking on what we can do to deserve more support from BME voters.

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Yesterday I argued that if the Conservative Party doesn’t increase its support among Britain’s black and minority ethnic (BME) communities then in the medium to long term it will cease to be a party capable of winning general elections.

I took a fair amount of abuse in the comments section, but no-one actually challenged either of the building blocks of my case:

  • the stark differential revealed by the Ethnic Minority British Election Study between the voting behaviour of people who classify themselves as white and people who classify themselves as being from a BME background; and
  • the evidence from the recently released 2011 Census data that people from a BME background make up a growing share of the electorate and that this trend is going to continue.

So what can we do to address this problem?  Unlike my critics in the comments section, I don’t claim to have all the answers but here are some thoughts.

First, we need to understand why we have historically done so badly among BME voters when the polling suggests that on most issues they are no less conservative than the electorate as a whole.

The standard explanation in yesterday’s comments was that this Government isn’t Conservative enough.  But we did similarly badly among BME voters when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.  It may well be true that a majority Conservative Government, free from the constraints of coalition, would be able to pursue more electorally popular policies but it’s nonsensical to blame the policies of this Government for our historic poor performance among BME voters.

A more plausible explanation can be found in Lord Ashcroft’s polling, which found that just 20% of British blacks and 36% of British Asians (and only 29% of whites!) think the Conservative Party understands minorities; and that 61% of British blacks and 46% of British Asians think that Conservative policies have shown that they are hostile to people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds (though on a positive note 51% of British blacks and 56% of British Asians think we are changing for the better).

Tebbit Norman Politics ShowWe need to face up to the fact that we are in this hole because of things we have said and done over the years - a perceived lack of concern about discrimination, the failure to set up an inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Tebbit cricket test, the language we’ve used in the past when talking about immigration (note that this doesn’t mean we can’t talk about immigration – contrary to what many in yesterday’s comments section assume, many ethnic minorities voters are just as concerned as you are about recent levels of immigration; the issue is what the language we use says about our motivation in raising the issue – concern about population growth and the impact on the work prospects of the unemployed or a hostility to foreigners settling here?).

The first and most important thing we can do is to acknowledge this in a high-profile way – say by the Prime Minister giving a major speech on the issue - and seek to reset the relationship. Now, you may say “What difference is one speech going to make to a deep-seated problem?”  It’s certainly true that most of the day-to-day goings on in the Westminster village have little impact on public opinion but occasionally a politician says or does something that cuts through – the Prime Minister’s use of the veto just over a year ago for example.  I think there’s a good chance that such a speech would achieve cut through, provided it is followed up as I suggest below.  When a leading politician says something about an issue that affects you directly you tend to take notice.  A surprising number of my constituents from a BME background know that the Prime Minister gave a speech last year in which he attacked multiculturalism (which was a mistake by the way – not because I support multiculturalism as we understand by the word, but because to many of my constituents it means something different - anti-racism).

But as I say such a speech would only be of value if we follow it up.  So what else do we need to do?

First, policy. As many of the people who commented yesterday rightly observed, whatever our ethnic background we fundamentally care about the same things – jobs, the cost of living, good healthcare, good schools for our children, crime.  But individual communities have particular concerns – the difficult in getting planning permission for new places of worship, stop and search, discrimination in the job market, the difficult people from Afro-Carribean backgrounds have in getting an organ transplant) and at a micro level we need to have policies to address those concerns, just as we have policies to address the concerns of other groups in society (but not favouring one group at the expense of another).

Second, CCHQ needs to devote more effort to the BME media.  We could, for example, be making much more of policies that are good for the country as a whole but which will particularly benefiting people from bme backgrounds – for example, Michael Gove’s reforms that will ensure that our education system doesn’t let down children from less well-off backgrounds.

Third, we need to make an effort at constituency level – understand the communities in our seats (as Ken Stevens said, it is highly misleading to refer to “the BME community” – we are actually talking about many diverse communities), attend community events, work together on joint initiatives (in Croydon, we’re promoting Sewa Day, an international day of volunteering, that fits in very well with the Big Society agenda) and encourage people to get involved in the Party.

Fourth, we need to ensure that our Party is representative of the country we aspire to serve.  We should always select people on merit but as some people were kind enough to point out there are too many people like me in Parliament.  CCHQ needs to ensure that it gives Associations a diverse pool of talent to choose from.  We made good progress at the last Election – people like Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Sam Gyimah and Alok Sharma are making a big contribution to the Parliamentary Party – but there is more to do.  And this is emphatically not just about ethnicity or gender – it’s also about having people from different socio-economic backgrounds and different parts of the country.

And finally we need to be patient.  We are not going to turn things round overnight.  As Yogi said, we have to be prepared to stick at this, both nationally and on the ground, for a number of years.

As I said, I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  But let’s not pretend, in the face of all the polling evidence, that this is just a matter of having the right policies and the voters will come.


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