3 March 2012

How could the Conservatives reach out to non-white Britons?

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“The number-one driver of not voting Conservative is not being white”, a senior Conservative tells Bagehot of The Economist, whose column looks at the importance of David Cameron turning this around if he is to hope to win a majority of seats at the next General Election,  something  the party last achieved two decades ago in April 1992 in a rather different Britain.

David Cameron put a great deal of emphasis on the need for the Conservatives to look more like modern Britain  in his five years as leader, leading to an unprecedented increase in the number of Conservative MPs who are black, Asian or mixed race.

What this did not do is make the Conservatives more attractive to non-white voters, at least not in time for the 2010 General Election: only 16% of non-white voters backed the party, compared to 37% of white voters in the 2010 election.

That academic study, to be published in full by Oxford University Press next year, but previewed in a recent paper for the Runnymede Trust (PDF file), contains several fascinating insights in shedding some light on this challenge is.

Here are some of its key conclusions:

*The ethnic voting gap is not because of social class.The soci0-economic position of various non-white groups differs widely, with some as or better off than the average, and some more disadvantaged. What the largest academic study of ethnic minority voting shows is that non-white voters have a stronger attachment to Labour in spite of social class, not because of it.

*Across ethnic groups, the economy is the number one issue facing Britain. There are not enormous differences in voters’ views on which issues matter most. However, in the 2010 study, non-white voters were considerably more likely to highlight unemployment as the most important issue facing Britain. The academic analysis found that the emphasis placed on unemployment is not explained by socio-economic position, or the likelihood of being unemployed.

*Immigrants are more positive about British democracy than the British-born. And most settled ethnic minorities report, overall, higher levels of satisfaction with how British democracy works, but those of Black Caribbean background reflect the most dissatisfaction with British democracy of any group.

*Every minority group is less likely to support higher public spending than white Britons, and more likely to support tax cuts.This is an interesting, and perhaps counter-intuitive, finding.  It makes it less likely that the answer for the Conservatives is to be found in appealing to the issue preferences of minorities.  Even where non-white voters are closest to the Conservatives on issues like  tax and spending, or crime, they prefer not to vote for it, with a sense of partisan allegiance trumping this.

*The major difference of opinion between all non-white groups of voters and white voters come over equal opportunity and affirmative action.  This also applies to those non-white voters who are generally seen as the most likely targets by the Conservatives. So the party might have to take care to rein in its instinct to be suspicious of  discussions of this topic as reflecting ‘political correctness gone mad’ if non-white voters believe more intervention is needed to achieve  fairness and equal opportunity, while white voters tend to see the risk of offending fairness by excessive intervention, such as affirmative action.

Several Conservatives believe, from doorstep anecdote and focus group evidence that, perhaps counter-intuitively, being tough on immigration will help them with Asian voters in particular. “In Tory-sponsored focus groups, researchers find minority voters frankly ferocious towards asylum seekers on benefits or eastern Europeans “stealing British jobs”, reports The Economist.

But there is limited support for this theory in the academic study. Anxiety about immigration is not confined to the white population. But the British Election Study found non-white voters less likely to prioritise immigration, with 5% choosing it as the top issue, compared to 11% of white voters. It does find that Indian voters are no more sympathetic to asylum seekers than white voters, but other British Asians are considerably more sympathetic, as are black Britons.

The Conservatives already have one in four Asian voters – so may already have the backing of several of those who are most vocal on the immigration issue. But what the bulk of the academic evidence shows is that being close to voters on their issue preferences – on tax and on crime – is not sufficient to secure their votes.  This suggests that the Conservatives are right to take care to have a moderate tone on immigration, as Damian Green and David Cameron consistently emphasise, even while seeking to make restrictions. Placing a much greater emphasis on the issue, while also emphasising its positive contribution to British society, may be a difficult issue.

The most plausible hypothesis is that distance from the Conservatives is a cultural legacy of the party’s overall image and identity. This cultural antipathy is a feature which non-white voters share with Scots, and to some extent voters in northern cities and those who work in public services.

In the case of non-white voters, this appears to be the legacy strong perception that Labour was on their side during the period of social change when race was a strongly contested issue, passing race equality acts, while the Conservative image remains somewhat in the shadow of past figures, from Enoch Powell to Norman Tebbit, who were seen as either strongly hostile or much less sympathetic, even though the modern party has moved on.

It could well be that an increasingly diverse Conservative Party will, over time, break down this historic suspicion of the party. It might well be expected that future generations of ethnic minority voters will be less distinct in their political views than other Britons, as we enter the third, fourth and fifth generations of large-scale post-war migration. But The Economist column captures the sense at the top of the party that more work needs to be done to try to speed that process if the Conservatives are to make electoral gains that they need.


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