The Tories problem winning Black votes isn’t Enoch Powell, it’s David Cameron

There’s a lively debate on the ConservativeHome website about the Tories lack of traction with Black and Asian voters with much agonising about the party’s reputation of hostility towards ‘ethnic minorities.’ But if they want answers they’ll need to ask different questions.

Paul Goodman, writing on ConservativeHome, delves into research by Lord Ashcroft which shows the degree of disconnection between Tories and multicultural Britain, and resurrects Enoch Powell and the infamous Smethwick campaign (“If you want a n****r for a neighbour vote Labour”) to explain the historical reasons for their unpopularity.

The debate is on the right track but is missing something. Yes, the Conservatives’ image as the natural home for Home Counties racists is as engrained as their reputation for only being interested in serving the rich. But this does not in itself explain why middle class and aspirational Black and Asian voters have not flocked to a party that now boasts 11 MPs of colour. The image of the party has changed considerably since the likes of Sam Gyimah, Priti Patel and Helen Grant were selected to fight safe seats. Stories about Conservative members making racially offensive comments, so common in years gone by, are now a rarity. 

The flaw in Lord Ashcroft’s report was only gathering focus group style questions and answers. The results were instant reactions rather than a deep feedback about the party’s standing in the eyes of BAME citizens. It failed to drill deeper and measure the extent to which attitudes had shifted more recently, and provided a only surface snapshot instead of a panoramic view of the Tories reputation from the days of Enoch Powell to the David Cameron makeover. The question should not be ‘where are we now?’ but ‘how fast is our image changing and why’? It is only by posing these questions that the Conservatives can move from hopeless resignation to an assessment of where they will be in 2015 and 202o, and what they need to do to speed up progress.

A wordcloud featuring BAME reaction to the Tories (from Lord Ashcroft’s report)

Clearly BAME political representation is no longer the major stumbling block. Neither, I would suggest, is their reputation for the better off in society as poorer Black and Asian families will always gravitate towards more progressive parties. No, the issue is one of policy and the extent to which they understand diverse communities. An example of where they have gone wrong was in March 2010 when David Cameron addressed a mostly-black audience at the Peckham Academy shortly before the last general election. 

He promised everything he thought the audience wanted to hear but has delivered next to nothing. He pledged to end the use of the terrorism act in stop and searches yet Section 60 stops are now running at 26 times higher for Black youth compared to their white counterparts. He promised a national mentoring scheme for black entrepreneurs, and even committed to ending unfair visa charges for visiting Africa and the Caribbean. Cameron (pictured) capped this with a Guardian article in which he promised “we’ll change Black Britain.”

Perhaps if the Conservatives worried less about the legacy of Enoch Powell and considered the insincerity of their leader when courting the Black and Asian vote they would make more headway. Going on a week-long splurge with newspaper articles and town hall style meetings with a BAME audience and only to forget about these communities in subsequent years does more to reinforce a negative impression than if they had ignored the issues altogether. 

Talk to the average Black or Asian Briton and they will tell you that the country has become ever more subtle and sophisticated at hiding its’ attitude towards people of colour. That is why Black youth unemployment (16-24)  is running at 55 percent, two and a half times the rate for white people of the same age and the disproportionate impact of austerity cuts on BAME communities has never been assessed. This is a Britain that smiles at the faces of multicultural Britain while continuing to discriminate against them, and the Conservatives occasional and fitful efforts to communicate with Black and Asian voters has come to represent this.

If the Tories moved from frustration at BAME impressions of them towards a realisation that the ball is in their court to demonstrate a genuine and ongoing concern for tackling the barriers they face then they would be heading in the right direction. If they ran the rule over their policies and public announcements over how they will be received by BAME communities – like Theresa May’s recent rhetoric about cutting skilled on EU immigrants – they would be going a long way to setting down a consistent message. 

When Cameron talked about “coming a long way” he needs to realise that Black and Asian voters are not so easily fooled. Conservatives need to question their own tick-box instincts and stop treating this part of the electorate as a soft touch that can be won over with one week of soundbites at election time or a few black or brown faces on the green benches. Their challenge is no longer to prove they are not unreconstructed racists but rather to demonstrate they are not insincere and two-faced executives who are smooth and urbane enough to communicate with us but in faced with a downsizing exercise would instinctively always fire the employee of colour first.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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