Conservative Party minds the ethnic gap

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Image source, WPA Pool

More than a decade ago, Theresa May warned her Conservative colleagues that some voters saw them as "the nasty party".

And she added: "As our country has become more diverse, our party has remained the same."

Since then, the party as changed - but not radically enough, according to some of its MPs.

And without further reforms, there are even those who suggest its very existence could be under threat.

At the 2010 general election, the party got 36% of the vote - but gained only 16% support among voters from ethnic minorities.

'Closing the gap'

The Conservatives had been pinning their hopes on boundary changes to give them a boost in 2015, ending the inbuilt bias towards Labour in the way constituencies are defined.

Deprived of that, the party leadership has been warned behind the scenes, it will be all the more difficult to win the next election without addressing the "ethnic gap".

There is a widespread recognition in the party that the gap won't close any time soon, but that it does need to be narrowed.

Image source, Oli Scarff
Image caption,
Gavin Barwell has a plan to boost Tory chances with minority voters

In 2011 and 2012, the party's former deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft undertook extensive polling - quantitative and qualitative - among voters from ethnic minorities.

It discovered: "Participants overwhelmingly thought the Conservative Party was for the better-off middle classes, not for people like them.

"Several mentioned incidents that seemed to confirm what they believed to be the party's hostility or indifference to ethnic minorities, and a majority in the poll thought that Conservative politicians looked down on people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds."

And he concluded: "In 2010, in 20 of Labour's 100 most vulnerable marginals that the Tories failed to win, the average non-white population was 15%. In the five of those that were in London, it was 28%. The Conservative Party's problem with ethnic minority voters is costing it seats."


Conservative whip Gavin Barwell calls this the "brand problem", and says it's one his party mustn't ignore.

He believes the party still hasn't "detoxified" its image enough since Theresa May issued her warning.

And he told the BBC: "In the long term, given that the ethnic-minority population is growing in this country, if we don't address this problem it poses an existential threat to the Conservative Party."

His ideas - which he freely admits "aren't rocket science" - include holding surgeries at mosques or temples, making the party itself look more like the communities it represents, and building better links with specialist publications aimed at different ethnic minority communities.

But he recognises these ideas in themselves aren't enough to turn things around.

Paul Uppal is from a Sikh background and won Wolverhampton South West with a wafer-thin majority at the last election. The seat once was once represented by Enoch Powell so his selection, just as much as his election, demonstrates that his party has been changing.

He's now on the Number 10 Policy Board which advises the prime minister.

'Reach out'

He and Gavin Barwell agree that what unites, as well as what distinguishes, ethnic minority communities is important.

In other words, all families are concerned about the state of the economy, education and jobs - and the Conservatives' performance on these issues should be the key election message - but equally "ethnic minority voters" should not be treated as a bloc.

Paul Uppal comes from a Labour-voting family and felt that they had taken ethnic minorities for granted.

Image source, WPA Pool
Image caption,
Paul Uppal (third from the right) is on David Cameron's policy board

"Traditionally, they looked at the black and ethnic minority vote as monolithic. We need to reach out," he says.

So one way in which the Conservatives can get permission to be heard on a range of issues is to address some specific concerns - and to promote policies which can signal that the party is listening to people that might not be amongst its traditional supporters.

For example, in recovering from electoral meltdown, Canadian Conservatives acknowledged the sensitivities of searching Sikh turbans at airports.

And now there are new calls for a symbolic issue here in Britain to be addressed.

For both practical and political reasons, Theresa May wants to change the police's powers to stop and search suspects without reasonable suspicion.

Home Office statistics suggest black people are seven times more likely than white people to be stopped, and that less than 10% of more than a million searches in 2011-12 resulted in an arrest.

'Young kid'

So as part of her wider reforms of policing, Mrs May wants to curb this apparent waste of officers' time.

But she also believes community relations are being damaged.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
David Cameron visits the Sikh Shrine Golden temple in Amritsar

Paul Uppall says: "When I was a young kid it happened to me and my father.

"We were stopped and the actual process of speaking to police officers about why we were stopped was a difficult conversation - so absolutely, we should speak about it."

But - although a consultation on stop and search was launched last summer - there hasn't been a change in the law.

I understand there won't be before this year's European elections - and possibly not before the general election.

Downing Street, unlike the Home Office, still aren't committed to reform. Some insiders blame former adviser Patrick Rock for blocking it in case the party looked soft on crime as it battles against UKIP.

Despite his recent departure, the block on the reform remains.

Gavin Barwell warns: "Strategically, it's a mistake to try to out-UKIP UKIP.

Image caption,
Enoch Powell is still associated with the Conservatives by some ethnic minority voters

"Our message is we made the right call on the economy - that's our strong point - and we shouldn't be chasing after the issues UKIP think are important, but talk about the issues we think are important."

And he sees advantages in reforming stop and search laws: "I see in my own constituency a real difficulty between the constituency and the police which makes it more difficult for the police to do their job. So its a good example of the kind of issue that by addressing it we show that we understand what the concerns that community are."


But not all of his colleagues are so sure.

Adam Afriyie was hailed as the first black Conservative MP, but he's determined not to be defined by his skin colour and in a recent newspaper interview he described himself as "post-racial".

He's extremely sceptical about the value of making symbolic - or indeed substantive - changes to policies such as stop and search.

"I think we should look at that, but I don't think it is right we change policies on the basis of some political gamble that will make us more popular. Knee-jerking on minor polices to send signals is like the Blair era. We should remain true to what we believe, and our policies don't pick out individual groups for special treatment as though they were hapless or helpless."

But whatever the coalition does - or doesn't do - on stop and search, David Cameron's party still hasn't fully addressed why some people with "small c" conservative values haven't yet felt able to embrace the "large C" Conservatives.