UK Politics

The Conservatives and ethnic minority voters

David Cameron knows that to succeed in the next general election he must win more support, not least from Britain's growing ethnic minority population. But why is his party's share of the ethnic minority vote so low? This report from BBC Radio 4 reporter Sima Kotecha contains some strong language.

Image caption How to attract more conference delegates from ethnic minorities?

In the 2010 general election the Conservative Party only won 16% of the ethnic minority vote, which tends to favour Labour.

Now party strategists are thought to be trying to work out how best to entice the non-white voters, who could make all the difference in 2015.

But why are so many ethnic minorities turned off by the Tories?

The 'r' word

Here's a quiz question for you: Which political party is 40-year-old Pritheepal Singh from Southampton affiliated with?

"I'm entrepreneurial, a businessman. I'm tough on crime and I have traditional strong family values," he says.

You'd be forgiven for thinking he might a Tory - but he is in fact a loyal Labour supporter and has been throughout his adult life. He illustrates a wider problem the Conservatives have with the ethnic minority population. Even though many of them share traditional party values, the majority lean to the left and vote Labour.

The question party strategists are asking is: "Why?"

Pritheepal Singh told me the answer is simple. He claims: "It's because they're racist."

"Racist?" I asked. "How can that be the case when they have ethnic minorities in the party?"

"Due to the fact that they're stopping migrants from coming into this country," he said.

Having spoken to dozens of people of ethnic origin over the last few weeks, I know that his remarks are not out of the ordinary. I heard the "r" word many times - perhaps identifying a common belief about the Conservatives.

Anthony Wells is a pollster for YouGov and has conducted research on voting patterns among the black and Asian population. He believes much of that perception is partly down to historical events.

"Most of the legislation on equal opportunities and anti-racial discrimination came from Labour governments, and the Conservative Party have often been associated with being anti-immigration. The historical legacy of Enoch Powell and the Smethwick campaign and all this builds into an association that the Conservatives are not for people from ethnic minorities," he said.

In the 1964 general election, Tory supporters are reported to have been behind a campaign in Smethwick, Staffordshire using the slogan: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour." Four years later - the former Conservative politician Enoch Powell - made the highly controversial "Rivers of Blood" speech where he spoke about the rising levels of immigration.

Even though these two events were more than 40 years ago, their sentiments still linger on in the minds of many minorities - including Harjab Singh, the chairman of the Sikh temples in Southampton.

"Like Enoch Powell, when they use rhetoric, they alienate the immigrant community. We are living here and our children are born here so we have got proper roots in this country," he said.

Lord Ashcroft - who once was the deputy chairman of the Conservatives - compiled some ethnographic research in 2011 about thoughts associated with the party by minorities. More than 10,000 people were sampled. He found that there was a widely held belief, especially among those from a Caribbean background, that the party was indifferent, or even hostile, towards them.

He cites in his report that many felt David Cameron unfairly blamed them for the 2011 summer riots. Some said that the Stephen Lawrence case was not investigated properly under the (1990s) Conservative government's watch.

Keys to No 10

Paul Uppal is the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West. He is of Sikh origin and says he understands the challenges facing his party - but is adamant they are on the right path.

He said: "I accept that for a long time maybe people have been looking for us as a party that's not been open to everybody but I wouldn't be a Conservative if I didn't feel that this party was trying to change things, open the door, and actually open the door for everybody in the UK regardless of their ethnic background. I think it's important for us as a party to focus on connection - to actually show we're inclusive - and we're doing that."

He is one of 11 ethnic minority Conservative MPs - which is a leap from 2005 when there were only two. The Indian-born MP for Reading West, Alok Sharma, has been assigned the task of generating more ideas on how to woo minority voters. Downing Street is also thought to be seeking advice from the Conservative Party in Canada - which has increased its popularity among minority voters.

The former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine believes the solution lies in more integration: "I doubt there is much substitute for the policy of personal involvement, of just getting to know people and being seen around, and canvassing areas where the ethnic minorities live as well as everywhere else. I don't think one is looking for what one might call policies - it is about attitudes and language."

I did ask the Conservative press office several times whether a minister would give us an interview, but they said they had nothing more to add to Paul Uppal's comments.

The UK's ethnic minority population makes up 8% of the electorate - a figure that is predicted to grow to at least 20% by 2051.

The Conservative Party's tighter rules on immigration are difficult to consume for many British Asians especially, who fear it will be even tougher for them to bring over their spouses or parents from abroad.

But the party claims it has made in-roads and pollsters say they're doing well with the Hindu vote.

Nevertheless, psephologists say they do have to up their game if they want to win some of those target marginal seats they have lost to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, like Harrow West and Solihull.

The price of failure there could cost the Conservatives the keys to 10 Downing Street.