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Max Wind-Cowie: We will win ethnic minority votes by backing outsiders - and learning from Boris

Max Wind-Cowie is Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.  Follow Max on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 20.37.10In his excellent piece on the challenges faced by the Conservative Party, Sunder Katwala yesterday singled out the shifting ethnic character of Britain.  He observed, rightly, that "the Conservatives received a wake-up call about the dangers of getting on the wrong side of demographic change from the experience of their U.S Republican cousins last year".

And this transatlantic gloom is only reinforced when you look at polling here in the UK.  Whereas 36 per cent of white Britons gave the Tory party their vote, only 16 per cent of our black and minority ethnic (BME) population will.  As Britain becomes less white over time – and it will – we can expect that imbalance to make it more and more difficult for us to win majorities.

This isn’t news.  Indeed, many conservative thinkers, politicians and commentators have warned of the dangers of our disengagement from BME Britain – including ConservativeHome’s own Tim Montgomerie and Paul Goodman.

There are some common themes in many of the solutions that have been offered – most of which I would echo. We need to be "in it to win it" – and establish a presence in BME areas which shows us to be open and interested.  We have to be emphasise commonalities between certain types of BME voters and our traditional base – in particular, their shared experience as small business-people and their common low-tax, anti-spending instincts.  And we have to recognise that within the BME population at large, and within particular demographic groups too, there is every bit as much diversity and difference as there may appear to be between BME voters and White British voters.

The truth is that patterns of aggregate behaviour, affected but not determined by race and ethnicity, are never simple. They take a long time to become clear and raise difficult questions.  This is every bit as true in areas as complex and confusing as voting patterns as it is in arguably more straightforward areas such as housing or health.  There are, I believe, three key lessons that the Conservative Party must learn if we are to resolve our difficulty with BME voters.

1) The fix will never be quick

This series is about how the Conservative Party might win majorities once more.  And I have some bad news.  If we’re only really interested in 2015, then a focus on ethnic minority voters is very unlikely to deliver the goods.  As Trevor Phillips, former Chair of the EHRC and current Chair of Demos’ work on integration, told me:

“The views of BME voters of my age [towards the Conservative Party] were shaped by traumatic events – such as the rise of Powellism – and are really quite hard to shift.  The Conservative Party is unlikely to win over even affluent people in that generation.”

Of course it is good – morally, politically – that the Conservative Party is not racist.  But it is true, I think, to say that no amount of apology will transform the deeply-held, emotional suspicion felt by many who believe they were let down by us in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Furthermore, this is a group who – because of Labour’s more dynamic and aggressive pursuit of anti-discrimination legislation – feel a direct and personal debt of gratitude to the Labour Party. We won’t change history and, there’s no point in trying. 

That’s not to say that we should abandon BME voters and retreat to a White core vote.  Because the longer-term looks more optimistic, and because 2015 will not be the last election we fight.

2) It’s no good just sucking up to vested interests

Sayeeda Warsi, former Conservative Co-Chair and current Minister for Faith Groups, is given to saying that BME voters "share our values but haven't traditionally voted Conservative".

This theory – of a naturally conservative BME electorate who, for historic or cultural reasons, are wedded to Labour – is an underlying assumption in many of the conversations I have with Conservative activists and MPs.  The problem with it is that, sometimes, the conservatism on display in many BME communities jars with that of the modern, open Conservative Party. 

Sometimes, the approach of the elders of BME communities can feel almost like that of old-school trade union barons. Individual liberty can sometimes be treated as secondary to a set of collective rights; there can be an instinct to close down debate within and between communities in favour of ‘unity’ - diversity within groups can be ignored.

The Labour Party have often tacitly supported this set-up – and they have benefited from doing so. The biradari system, for example – in which community elders have effectively gifted elections to Labour – has been rewarded by Labour Governments by the turning of a blind eye and the allocation of funding in such a way as to reinforce and entrench the influence of established "community leaders".  For two reasons, this cannot be the Tory way.

First, it is a strategy of diminishing returns.  Bradford West and Tower Hamlets – both areas in which the taken-for-granted BME vote rebelled, delivering stinging defeats for Labour in their heartlands – show that working via ‘elders’ is less of a guarantee than has been assumed. 

Second, this approach is wholly antithetical to our Party’s values.  In the same way that in the 1980s we refused to acknowledge union barons as the sole legitimate representatives of working class interests, so we must not treat religious or community leaders as though they have some divine right to speak on behalf of their own diverse groups.

Whilst we do need to win over BME voters – particularly younger voters – we mustn’t try to do so by pretending that we agree with the "leaders" of particular communities and imitating Labour’s approach. We need an authentically conservative take on dealing with multiculturalism and diversity.

Support the outriders

So what to do?  Well, I believe the Party should ally itself with outriders within BME communities.  We should be side by side with people like my friend Jasvinder Sanghera – who was recently rewarded for her inspiring work with a CBE. Jasvinder has translated her own experiences of "forced segregation" – as she puts it – into a life spent campaigning for the rights of women in BME communities.  She isn’t asking her community to give up on its culture and its heritage, but she is demanding that they recognise the British way of life as their own and that they respect the freedom of individuals to live lives that they choose for themselves. 

Her message is powerful and it fits much more comfortably into the Conservative Party’s conception of society than does mimicry of the clientism that has characterised Labour’s approach.

What’s more, it strikes a chord with exactly the young, BME voters with whom we stand a chance of connecting.  As the Economist pointed out in their recent article Generation Boris, across the board the UK’s younger population is charactertised by a commitment to the kind of rugged individualism and aspiration that is embodied by people like Jasvinder, and which is at the heart of modern conservatism.

And that leads us to some of the policies that might start to make a difference in how we are perceived. The outriders in BME communities are not only those who take a stand against particular practices. 

They are also the people building a small business but who remain convinced that banks discriminate against them on the basis of assumptions about what it means to be an Asian shopkeeper.  They are the mothers desperate for improvements to the local school, who would leap at the chance of more targeted support to help them benefit from Gove’s ‘free-school revolution’. They are people like Ray Lewis, taking a lonely but fruitful stand against the rise in gang culture amongst the men and boys they see around them – who would revel in a real ‘Big Society’ approach that rewarded their success in undermining silence and aquiescence in communities torn apart by violence.

Yesterday, Sunder highlighted Boris Johnson’s successive victories in London as evidence that the Conservative Party might be able to turn the tide of BME antipathy.  He’s right to have done so. For Boris’ win demonstrated exactly the kind of Toryism that can work in convincing young BME voters to give us a chance.

Boris’ message for BME Londoners was about opening doors for people, ensuring that barriers to entrepreneurship and success (be they self-imposed by communities or created by lingering discrimination) are torn down and promoting the positive ideals of integration and patriotism.  And it is these themes that might, just, work in promoting our party to voters who – at present – don’t really hear us. 

We need to work with outriders, take our time and – at all costs – avoid replicating the dangerous and failing strategy that Labour has pursued.


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