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Tories' toxic relationship with ethnic minorities will hit them where it hurts

Following her resignation from the coalition the former Foreign Office minister, Sayeeda Warsi, has warned the Conservative Party it faces defeat in the 2015 general election unless it does more to attract…

Target voters for the modern Conservative Party. Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

Following her resignation from the coalition the former Foreign Office minister, Sayeeda Warsi, has warned the Conservative Party it faces defeat in the 2015 general election unless it does more to attract the support of ethnic minority voters. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday Warsi warned attempts to recruit more black and Asian members to the party are being “lost” and a Conservative majority is inconceivable until the party begins to win the support of voters from a broader range of backgrounds.

While there is no doubt considerable truth in Warsi’s comments – only 16% of minority ethnic voters supported the Conservatives at the 2010 general election – this is far from a new problem for the party. Conservatives have been grappling with question of how to win the support of black and Asian voters for at least 60 years.

Immigration to the United Kingdom rose rapidly during the 1950s, and particular constituencies were quick to recognise the electoral potential of immigrant communities. From 1951 onwards local agents could be found writing to Conservative Central Office requesting guidance on how best to appeal to the new voters.

Minorities ‘not interested’ in politics

While the advice from Central Office may not always have been constructive – in 1953 the official line was that immigrants were “not interested” in politics, and that a sustained campaign was therefore not worthwhile – at the local level many constituency parties did attempt to engage minority ethnic communities. This often consisted merely of translating party literature into relevant languages, but in towns and cities with larger immigrant populations local Conservatives made more direct overtures to minority ethnic voters, hiring speakers with an expertise in languages, which they did in Coventry in 1955, or organising public meetings for Asian voters, which they did in Bradford in 1959.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the question of minority ethnic voters remained one for local initiative rather than central organisation. From the mid-1970s onwards, however, the Conservative Party began to take the question of minority ethnic voters more seriously. This was in part the consequence of the publication of a 1975 Community Relations Commission (CRC) report which suggested that the support of minority ethnic voters had been an important factor in Labour’s victories at the 1974 general elections.

The CRC report noted that there had been 59 constituencies in which the majority of successful candidate was less than the size of the minority ethnic electorate: in October 1974, 43 of these constituencies were won by the Labour Party.

The response of Central Office was to establish two societies targeted at minority ethnic voters – the Anglo-Asian (AACS) and Anglo-West Indian Conservative Societies (AWICS) – which operated under the auspices of the party’s Community Affairs Department.

In addition to providing a pathway into the party for black and Asian voters, the societies also operated as a source of information and guidance for constituency parties. They provided advice on how to use the electoral register to target minority voters, assistance with languages and suggestions for social events that local associations might organise. The AACS also published a regular newsletter, Confluence, which carried information about the society’s activities and about the progress of minority ethnic councillors and candidates.

This was coupled with a sustained campaign to raise the profile of senior Conservatives among minority ethnic electorates. For instance, in 1981 Margaret Thatcher was interviewed by the journalist Mahendra Kaul for the BBC’s Asian-language television programme Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan (The New Life) and spoke at the opening of a Bhavan Centre in West Kensington.

Other senior Conservatives would follow Thatcher onto the set of Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan, including her deputy prime minister, Willie Whitelaw, and the minister for home affairs, Timothy Raison.

While both the AACS and AWICS did succeed in building a modest membership – at their peak the two societies had a combined membership of several thousand – they had relatively little impact on the behaviour of minority ethnic voters. If this was in part because long-held political allegiances proved difficult to shift, it also owed something to the political trajectory of the party in this period.

‘Different culture’

From the mid-1950s onwards the Conservative Party had adopted a progressively tougher line on immigration in response to growing public concern, and in the 1960s the likes of Enoch Powell and Cyril Osbourne advocated an even more restrictive approach. Immigration and race relations remained on the political agenda throughout the 1970s as a result of the Ugandan Asian crisis and the rise of the National Front.

While the Conservative Party did initially adopt a more constructive attitude on race relations after 1975, its uncompromising stance on immigration and unhelpful statements from senior Conservatives can have done little to endear the party to minority ethnic voters. Those responsible for the AACS and AWICS must have despaired when Thatcher told ITV’s World in Action that the British people felt “swamped by people of a different culture”.

Identifying the issues that mattered to black and Asian voters also proved to be a challenge for the party. Campaigns targeted at minority ethnic voters tended to focus on issues such as the plight of small businesses or family values and attempted to present the Conservatives as the party of economic opportunity. These campaigns often scrupulously avoided questions of race. Where the party did attempt to engage with these issues, it often appeared to present “Britishness” as being mutually exclusive with other identities (as in the case of the 1983 newspaper advertisement titled “Labour Says He’s Black, Tories Say He’s British”).

Another from the Saatchi & Saatchi stable. Conservative Party Archive

Of course, the challenges that the modern Conservative Party faces are in many respects rather different to the challenges of the 1950s or the 1970s, but they are no less complex. If the impact of black and Asian voters in 2015 will vary considerably from constituency to constituency, across the country as a whole the minority ethnic electorate is now simply too large to ignore.

Polling evidence continues to suggest that the Conservatives will perform poorly among black and Asian voters, with the party’s perceived hostility towards those of different religious or ethnic backgrounds being cited as a key reason for not voting Conservative. While there are signs that some within the party have begun to recognise the performance of addressing these perceptions, “detoxifying” the Conservative brand for minority ethnic voters is likely to be a long and difficult process.