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Tokenism and ignorance: how the Conservative Party misplayed its hand with ethnic minority votes. And what it can do to improve.

By Paul Goodman
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Knowing one group of ethnic minority voters...

Mohammed Razzaq died not long before I was selected as the Conservative candidate for Wycombe, so I never got the chance to meet one of the first Tory Asian mayors in the country.  A wave of migrants left the part of Kashmir that is effectively controlled by Pakistan to work in the High Wycombe's paper mills and furniture factories, joined trade unions and thus were thus placed automatically on the conveyer belt that led to the Labour Party.  Razzaq was part of it, and time made his switch to the Conservatives less unusual.  As the years passed and living standards rose, clan politics, the Tory grip on local politics, disillusion with Labour and - I like to think - a growing awarness that Conservative policies work combined to give the party an unusually high share of this almost exclusively Kashmiri (or Pakistani) origin and Muslim Asian vote.

My swing in both 2001 and 2005 (the two elections I fought and won) was roughly the regional average - and this in what was then the Tory constituency with the largest proportion of Muslim voters in the country.  The shift to me was therefore either disproporionately large among non-Asian voters - broadly speaking, the white majority - or shared out fairly evenly among voters of all backgrounds.  The truth probably lies somewhere between the two.  I would be surprised if I won less than a third of the Asian vote in 2001 and more than two-fifths or so in 2005.  This had less to do with my merits or otherwise than, as I am indicating, unusual voting ( the recent Runnymede Trust briefing found that an average of only 13% of Pakistani-origin vote Conservative) in an unusal Tory seat.

...Doesn't mean knowing them all

My ten years in the constituency began three months before 9/11, ran through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and ended just after Israel's incursion into Gaza.  This may help to explain why I became increasingly preoccupied by security and cohesion issues: the 2006 transatlantic bomb plot had a local connection.  This left me with twin convictions about campaigning in seats with large ethnic and religious minorities.  First, that it's mistaken to assume that they assume goodwill when the party is concerned, and can be wooed in exactly the same way as the white majority.  Second, that they are all the same - a patronising and flawed assumption.  I may know a bit about Kashmiri and Pakistani-origin voters, but have little experience of Indian-origin ones who practice Hinduism, or black Christians from Africa, or Sikhs, or... the list is a long one.

None the less, there is a common unease about the Conservative Party which has a common origin, and resonates across the generations.  First, there is a perception that the party is against people of different backgrounds and religions, dating from a time when immigration control was more closely identified with race than it is today.  The echoes of Enoch Powell's 1968 speech linger.  Second, there is the reality of poorer people voting Labour: black people, and those whose familes hail from Pakistan or Bangladesh, tend to be poor and thus not to vote Tory.  Finally, the two mesh together to push resistance to supporting the Conservatives up the income scale.  Under a quarter of Indian-origin voters - relatively well-off people as a rule - voted Tory in 2010.

Under one in five ethnic minority voters backed the party in 2010

Only 16 per cent of all ethnic minority voters did so.  The proportion of such voters was under one in ten in 2001. By 2050 ethnic minorities will make up a fifth of the population.  The party is being propelled down the road to demographic decline.  As James Forsyth and Bagehot have reported, Downing Street is on the case.  The latter reported that Paul Uppal, the Sikh MP elected in 2010 for Powell's old seat of Wolverhampton South-West, addressed MPs at the recent party awayday.  I gather that Kris Hopkins and Dominic Grieve also did so - and that of the three Grieve's address, which stressed that there is no substitute for commitment, hard work and engagement, went down best.  Downing Street has also carried out its own polling, which suggests, like the Runnymede Trust's, that voter resistance is less strong among Hindus and Sikhs.

It is working closely with MPs from constituencies with large concentrations of ethnic minority voters, such as Uppal and Alok Sharma, the MP for Reading West.  These are not necessarily members of ethnic minorities themselves: MPs such as Hopkins in Keighley or Angie Bray in Ealing Central and Acton or Bob Blackman in Harrow East or Mike Freer in Finchley and Golders Green or Gavin Barwell in Croydon Central represent these marginals, while ethnic minority colleagues in the same 2010 intake - Helen Grant in Maidstone or Sajid Javed in Bromsgrove or Kwasi Kwarteng in Spelthorne - represent safer seats.  They don't always come up with the same solutions.  Barwell wants David Cameron to denounce Norman Tebbit's cricket test.  Others believe that part of the problem is that the Conservatives, unlike Labour, aren't associated with race relations laws.

Downing Street's plan to improve

They argue that the original race relations act and landmark reports like the Macpherson enquiry were carried out under Labour Governments, and that Labour has therefore received the credit for them.  This line of thinking is contestible.  After all, the Scarman report was carried out when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.  Nor have the Conservatives always held out for tighter immigration controls than Labour.  The Wilson Government restricted immigration during the late 1960s and the Heath Government admitted the Ugandan Asians a few years later (though the party has reaped no long-term electoral benefit in Leicester).  But Downing Street is in any event resistant to dreaming up new race relations legislation for the sake of it.  I have urged the re-badging of the party's opposition to multiculturalism.

But there is no quick fix - "This is a long-term work in progress", one party strategist told me  - and no substitute for Grieve's recommendations: hard work, local knowledge, unceasing availability, grinding commitment.  The party at last seems to be moving beyond the tokenism and ignorance that too often has marred its approach in the past. Sayeeda Warsi is also right to seek to make Conservative Ministers turn out for events in marginal seats with the same automatic commitment that their Labour equivalents show.  But above all, Downing Street's motto should be: know your audience.  If you want to make the Tory candidates' list "look more like Britain", fine - indeed, essential.  But don't assume that putting up impressive ethnic minority candidates - such as Sean Bailey last time round - will automatically turn urban marginals blue.

Make a plan and stick to it

Indeed, be alive to the fact that perceptions are slow to change, and that while appointments made from tokenism rather than on merit may impress white liberal voters, they are unlikely to cut the mustard with anyone else - especially target voters.  So make a plan and stick to it.  If you believe that liberal voters - or female ones of Pakistani origin - are a key target group, keep Warsi in a important role.  If the evidence suggests that Sikhs and Hindus are more likely to vote Tory, then look elsewhere.  If you really want the support of black Christians - probably the easiest-to-reach part of hard-to-reach voters - ask yourself whether the push for gay marriage is a help or a hindrance.  If you want to learn from abroad, note that Jason Kenney, the Canadian Minister that Downing Street wants to learn from, isn't squeamish about using the m-word - "multiculturalism".

And if you think that all this is a nonsense, appoint a single strong Party Chairman who can tackle  any subject on TV or radio at the drop of a hat - and is in a position to "tell the truth to power" in Downing Street.  Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea in any event.


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