UK Politics

Conservatives target Labour's ethnic minority votes

Helen Grant MP Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Helen Grant was sports minister under David Cameron

Despite their best efforts, the Conservatives still lag behind Labour when it comes to attracting black and minority ethnic voters.

But a new campaign group hopes to capitalise on the "disarray" in the opposition's ranks to regain ground.

The organisation, Modern Britain, held a packed fringe event at the party's conference in Birmingham.

One of the panellists, former minister Helen Grant, offered a blunt verdict on her party's record, warning it would "let down millions of people" and miss out on black and minority ethnic (BME) voters in 2020 unless it properly addressed issues of racism, integration and community cohesion.

She said government policy on these issues had become "completely intertwined" with counter-terrorism and extremism, causing suspicion which was undermining its policies.

In 2015, the Conservatives secured an estimated 21% of BME voters - a record high. But according to Modern Britain, this increase was mainly limited to Indian and Bangladeshi communities, with Labour remaining the "dominant force" amongst other groups.

Ms Grant, a sports minister and a justice minister in the last Parliament, focused on the EU referendum, and the "dramatic increase" in hate crime since the result was announced.

"In the last few months I have heard of more reports and references to use of the N word than I have in the last 35 years," she told delegates.

It was as if the Brexit result "legitimised the unacceptable", she said.

Image copyright Modern Britain
Image caption It was a well-attended fringe debate at the Conservative conference

"Politicians need to work much, much harder to rebuild trust in the black and minority ethnic community," she said.

"The relationship wasn't brilliant before the campaign. But the damage done during the campaign and following the campaign should not be underestimated."

She said "great care" was needed to ensure Brexit was not at the expense of the UK's diversity.

Ministers should spend much more time outside Westminster, she said, and while not everyone who complains about immigration was a racist, racism is "alive and kicking above and below the radar".

Leading Conservative MEP Syed Kamall disagreed with people "going on about" Brexit, describing the UK's departure from the EU as a "huge opportunity".

"We need no lessons from any other EU country when it comes to tolerance," he said.

Etonians

The Tories are "way behind" Labour in some communities, Mr Kamall said: "But let's be quite clear what diversity is.

"Diversity is not replacing white Etonians with black Etonians.... or white millionaires with Asian millionaires," he said to murmurs of approval from the audience.

"It's about making sure we have people from all backgrounds in this party."

Rather than gestures and photocalls, he said the Tories should "be part of the solution" for example by setting up free English lessons for migrants.

The liveliest debate came when an audience member raised Zac Goldsmith's campaign - branded divisive and racist by critics - for London mayor in May.

"Stupid question," said one man in the audience.

"No, we have to learn the lessons," replied another.

Political will

Ms Grant said Mr Goldsmith was a "really good man" but said his campaign had "done an awful lot of damage".

"If Zac was sitting here now he would agree with us as well, that given the time again he would probably do things differently," she said.

Mr Kamall agreed, saying the way the campaign attempted to target different communities was "awful".

"I think we have to be very careful about the way we target voters," he said, warning against treating all minority groups in the same way.

Key to the Tories' chances, the panellists agreed, was reaching out in a "non-patronising way" to different areas.

"We know what we need to do," said Ms Grant. "We just need genuine political will, genuine leadership and we need a little bit of money."