In the past week, Conservative HQ has been busy in trying to dismiss the significance of the resignation of the Foreign Office minister Sayeeda Warsi. Whereas the Downing Street spin machine has distilled anonymous pints of bile about one of the few Muslim faces in the Conservative Party, some members of the Cabinet have been open in their criticisms.
The outspoken and confrontational style of Lady Warsi was not appreciated in Conservative Central Office – and certainly not in Downing Street – but the party should not dismiss her analysis of the Tories’ electoral weaknesses. As she told The Independent on Sunday, the Conservatives are in no position to “win outright Conservative majorities until we start attracting more of the ethnic vote”.
Warsi’s electoral prediction is supported by a huge amount of polling evidence. Research conducted Operation Black Vote showed that in more than 160 marginal seats the black and minority ethnic (BME) vote will be crucial and may well decide the outcome of the 2015 general election.
The importance of the BME vote can be explained by two main demographic changes. The first one is the growth of the ethnic minority population. A projection by the think-tank Policy Exchange estimates that by 2050, 30% of Britain’s population will be of non-white background.
The second demographic trend is related to geography. In the past ethnic minorities were mostly concentrated in urban areas (where the Labour Party tends to be stronger than the Conservatives). In recent years many ethnic minority communities moved to suburban areas, where many marginal seats are located. These trends affect the three main parties but for the Conservatives they are particularly worrying.
Lord Ashcroft’s detailed polling shows ethnic minority voters view the Conservatives “as a party of middle-class white people which talks only to other middle-class white people”. And research conducted by David Sanders, Anthony Heath, Stephen Fisher and Maria Sobolewska showed that BME voters “are more likely to consider their rights and interests to be best protected by Labour governments and most at risk under the Conservatives”.
In David Cameron’s modernising days, the party made a concerted effort to widen its electoral appeal by targeting BME voters. At the time, Cameron was highly supportive of Warsi and her efforts to select more parliamentary candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds and to target Asian voters with a “small-c” conservative agenda. Then, it was believed that Tory family values and the support for low taxes and free enterprise would attract the votes of Asian businessmen and businesswomen. But by Warsi’s own admission, the party made little progress on this front.
In 2010 the party managed to increase the number of MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds from two to 11 (Labour has 16 MPs of ethnic minority background), after attracting 16% of the BME vote (Labour attracted 68%). However, polling conducted by YouGov for the think-tank Demos showed that no progress has been made since 2010. Worse, research conducted by Operation Black Vote suggests that at next year’s elections, the Conservative Party “may lose up 61 seats to Labour in constituencies where the BME electorate exceeds the Conservative MPs’ majority” – though it can also gain 56 Labour-held seats with the support of BME communities.
Warsi is not the only Conservative concerned by these trends. Lord Ashcroft, Theresa May and others periodically remind the party leadership of the dangers of alienating BME voters.
But at the moment these voices are a minority in a party that seems hell-bent at out-doing UKIP on immigration, Europe, multiculturalism, welfare and any other issue that may make the Tories look like the “nasty party” again. Tory backbenchers support the type of muscular anti-immigration policies such as last year’s Home Office vans telling illegal immigrants to leave Britain. Even the prime minister was keen to show his “tough on immigration” credentials by accompanying the police in a recent raid to a home of suspected illegal immigrants.
Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ electoral campaign chief thinks that targeting BME votes “muddies the message” and he has advised the party to ignore the Muslim vote. The problem is that the electoral results of May’s European and local elections showed that this strategy did not stop the UKIP surge at the expense of the Conservative Party (and at the expense of Labour too). It is unlikely that it will have a different effect at next year’s general elections.