The Times reported this week that following a briefing to Conservative cabinet members about the continued lack of support for the Tories from Britain’s Black and Asian communities David Cameron has instructed his ministers to come up with policies to attract more BAME voters.
As the report suggested, this move had more to do with hard number-crunching than altruism or a genuine desire to see a more racially-equal society. It owes far more to two overlapping factors: the Romney Effect – the realisation that the Republican candidate lost out on the White House because he ‘ran out’ of white voters – and UK seat-by-seat analysis which shows sizable BAME populations in many marginal constituencies that the Tories need to win if they are to gain an outright majority at the 2015 general election.
Neither factor should come as a surprise. I wrote last November, in the wake of the US presidential elections that British political parties needed to consider the Romney Effect.
Parties persist with a colour-blind approach, and therefore treat BAME communities as invisible, they will continue to ignore the issues that most affect them – such as racially-disproportion outcomes on jobs, education and health – are effectively writing off any hope of loosening their historical ties to Labour.
And if Labour fail to present policies to deal with institution racism Black and Asian communities will be more likely to not vote at all, disenfranchising themselves, which has huge consequences for the legitimacy of the political process.
The latest population census has helped focus political minds in the Conservatives about the need to win a greater share of the BAME vote. As I wrote last November the historical reputation of the Tories as being naturally hostile to Black and Asian communities is only part of the picture. Yes, the legacy of Enoch Powell and the infamous Smethwick election campaign have left a hard-to-shift stain on the Tory brand but it is the failure of the modern Tory party under Cameron to recognise the extent of racial discrimination and its’ failure to put in place serious policies to address it that is causing the most damage.
BAME communities know that the Conservatives are no longer the party of Enoch Powell but they believe that while negative attitudes have faded they have not been replaced with positive policies to create a more racially-equal society. It is as if Tories believed that not being overtly and explicitly racist will somehow trickle down and magically undo decades of unfairness without the need to lift a finger.
The Times report suggests that Cameron now realises that he needs to deliver proof in pudding form that the Tories care about BAME communities. Tory vice-chair Alok Sharma is now in charge of coming up with Black-friendly policies and other ministers have also been asked to put their thinking caps on.
This is welcome but it remains to be seen whether such a strategy can deliver policies that are implemented with a difference that can be felt in time for the 2015 election. A report by Lord Ashcroft showed just how much ground the Conservatives need to make up, and an article I wrote for The Voice last month suggests that it is Labour who are in a much better position to win seats by appealing to BAME voters in marginal seats held by Tories and Liberal Democrats if Ed Miliband can himself come up with the policies to demonstrate that Labour are serious about tackling racial disadvantage.
Either way it is encouraging that BAME votes are becoming a key battleground with all parties competing with each other instead of writing off the ‘Black vote’ as being concentrated in Labour’s inner city heartlands.
Given that it was Labour who abandoned the ‘race agenda’ around 2005 with the abolition of the old Commission for Racial Equality and the adoption of a colour-blind agenda they too have some convincing to do.
The Lib Dems, a party with a self-image of being dedicated to equality, are in danger of being left behind the bigger two parties unless they raise their game. Sadly over the past two years Lib Dem ministers have completely brought into a Tory ‘integration’ agenda that does nothing to challenge unfair racial outcomes in Britain and they now risk being left behind as Cameron changes direction to appeal to BAME communities.
Unless the Lib Dems completely reappraise their approach to race equality they are in danger of being the most irrelevant party in the eyes of Britain’s Black and Asian communities.
It is this issue that will be at the forefront of a conference later this month organised by the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (I sit on their executive) and the Social Liberal Forum. MPs Simon Hughes and Tom Brake will be addressing this conference and I am speaking in the afternoon.
In many ways this comes at the most crucial time for the Lib Dems. The question is simple: change now or end up like Mitt Romney with hardly any support from Black voters and not enough support from white voters to make a difference. You can book your place here.
From 10am. Hughes Parry Hall, University of London, 19-26 Cartwright Gardens. London. WC1H 9EF, nearest underground Kings Cross and Euston
Speakers include: SLF chairs Gareth Epps and Naomi Smith, EMLD chair Issan Ghazni, Baroness Floella Benjamin, Wilf Sullivan – Race Equality Officer TUC, Rob Berkeley – Director Runnymede Trust, Baroness Meral Ece, Professor Gus John, Simon Hughes MP, Tom Brake MP, Cllr Lester Holloway.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway