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Samuel Kasumu: The Conservative Party must do much, much more to become a party for ethnic communities

Samuel Kasamu is a social entrepreneur and political commentator

Screen shot 2012-02-03 at 13.59.05David Cameron’s mission of transforming the image of the Conservative Party has had many successes. However, there continues to be a unique challenge: the Party still suffers from a very low level of support amongst ethnic communities.

If anyone thinks this is an insignificant issue, we need only look at the last general election. Conservatives received 16% of the overall votes of Black and Asian voters, and Boris Johnson is currently having some tense times in his quest for re-election. 2010 was the first time a general election was won by a party that had not managed to win the majority of the seats in London. Our capital is the most diverse city in the world, with over 300 languages spoken and over 50 indigenous communities with a population of more than 10,000. Boris is struggling, particularly in inner-city areas in London - areas where you would tend to find larger concentrations of ethnic communities.

Race relations is a political challenge that has roots back in the early years of post-war Britain, and the Conservatives have simply never been able to form a discourse that is both a coherent and credible alternative to Labour's. Many of the Commonwealth migrants that we see today are the relatives of people that fought for our country during the Second World War. Some are also economic migrants that came in the late 1940s to support the rebuilding of Britain after the war and must now be accepted as part of Britain’s rich history. The contributions of ethnic communities must be valued and appreciated, and our Party must not be seen to shy away from talking about "race".

Every race relations law passed in Britain has been passed under a Labour government. One mustn’t forget that Stephen Lawrence was killed in 1993, and yet the Macpherson review that first coined the term "institutional racism" within the Metropolitan Police was not ordered until Labour won the election in 1997. Thatcher’s record on race celations was unfortunately not much better, with a number of race riots during the 1980s, but even she managed to receive 18% of the Black Minority Ethnic (BME) vote in 1987 - our best result to date.

In a recent interview. the mother of the late Stephen Lawrence, Doreen Lawrence, said in reference to the Government’s race policy agenda: "I’ve not heard them talk about race". One of the leading campaigners on race relations of our generation making such a statement is a big issue that should not be taken lightly. I’m not sure if the words of the former chief executive of the Commission for Racial Equality, Lord Ouseley, were better or worse when he said that current race policy "was more style than substance". So we have some significant challenges, and our relationship with ethnic communities must get better.

Research would show that one of the most significant areas of tension is the debate on immigration. While most would agree that there is a need to tighten UK borders, there is a sense that the debate is not very balanced.  The fact is that non-EU migration is points-based, meaning that you cannot come to the UK unless a) you have a skill that the UK needs and b) your skill is not currently in supply through British citizens.

There may well be some issues that need to be addressed under the current system, but Damian Green’s new immigration strategy (which of course is only for non-EU migrants) will only reduce net migration by tens of thousands at best and not hundreds of thousands, which is the aspiration of David Cameron. EU migration will continue to be the elephant in the room until a government is brave enough to tackle it. Non-EU migration is not the biggest problem: it’s just an easier target which further isolates the Conservatives when the issue is addressed in an insensitive manner.

There are other areas where there is room for a wider debate, and in which the Tories need to demonstrate fairness. According to the Runneymede Trust, some ethnic communities' key policy priorities include education and unemployment. Michael Gove is doing an excellent job, but many ethnic minority parents that have submitted applications for free schools have had them turned down (with the odd exception).

This is probably more to do with class than race, but still presents another barrier. Middle class parents, who can afford to pay a consultant to assist with their applications to open a school, seem to have an unfair advantage. The Government must be more active in engaging with parents from different backgrounds on education policy, as some Labour MPs are doing a great job of scaring the parents within their constituencies.

With unemployment, job creation policies in areas like Tottenham cannot be ignored. 50% of African/Caribbean young people are unemployed, compared to 20% of young people overall in the UK. I remain uneasy about the long-term value of the Work Programme. The programme was never piloted, is very expensive, and the model limits the level of potential engagement from small charities. Giving big contracts to Serco and G4S may not fix every problem. Local community groups are the solution.

We have a unique opportunity to create a new conversation with many ethnic communities that are here to stay. I welcome the efforts of some Parliamentarians that recognise the need to build relationships with all sections of their constituencies. I also welcome the work of various groups within the Party, including the Tory Reform Group, who proudly identify diversity as one of the core values of One Nation conservatism. And I admire the work being done by organisations like the Bow Group, who are in the process of developing a range of programmes that will engage a variety of groups that the Party needs to be engaging with at a policy level.

But more needs to be done, and the Liberals and Labour seem to be one step ahead with many of their current initiatives. The Liberals have a leadership development programme that is backed by the whole party, and even saw Nick Clegg host a special dinner two weeks ago. Labour have recently set up a diversity youth initiative that is currently supporting Ken Livingstone’s mayoral election.

We need to have our own voice when it comes to issues of race, just as we have managed to carve out a political voice when it comes to gender inequality. I would recommend a long list of measures. These would include our own programme to attract potential leaders from non-traditional backgrounds. These will be the same leaders that would help us to reach their communities more effectively. I’d encourage Conservative Future (CF) to set themselves some targets with regards to attracting new members for the Party from diverse backgrounds. If CF is the future of the Party, then they need to learn how to communicate with different types of people early on.

I’d have community briefings every year, where leaders from different communities are invited to Parliament. This way, they could speak with policy makers face to face, and also learn about what the Party is doing. A big issue that the Party has is showing our policies are beneficial for everybody, so meeting leaders directly will help. Sending regular press releases to ethnic community media outlets to let them know what we are doing would be a good idea.  Furthermore, there is a need to engage faith groups to demonstrate we are a party that respects faith and freedom of expression within the context of our nation’s shared values and boundaries.

I’d encourage the Party to spend significant time researching which community groups have the largest reach (particularly within key marginal seats) and develop a strategy to build relationships with them. I’d ensure that the next Conservative Manifesto is written following more consultation with communities that would like to see radical solutions to very pressing problems like unemployment. We also need to focus energies on getting more ethnic minorities involved in local Conservative Associations. An annual diversity week within the whole Party, and a special awards ceremony where best practices are recognised would also be a step in the right direction. Finally, I’d ensure that there isn’t only one fringe event on this topic at Party Conference, and events are not only put on by left wing think tanks (believe it or not: that’s exactly what happened last year to my surprise).

Yes, there must be dialogue where we encourage all of Britain’s residents to integrate and take pride in what it means to be British. But for this to happen, ethnic groups should not feel like they are marginalised or unwelcome. This is counter-productive.  National Citizen Service has the potential to build lasting relationships with various communities through our young people, and the Big Society is an ideal that can help to break down barriers. We are a Party with values that are universal, policies that are compassionate, with a desire for true fairness. But as the British population evolves in its ethnic makeup we must now make the case for being a Party for all.


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