Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
Although we have held office for the last seven years, we Conservatives face grave electoral challenges. An estrangement between the party and key sections of the population is threatening to hinder our prospects in many areas of the country.
The growing gulf between Conservatives and Britain’s millions of black and minority ethnic (BME) voters is an issue we need to tackle urgently. (I apologise to those who dislike the term BME, but it is widely used and there does not seem to be a widely acceptable alternative). Failure to do reach out to more diverse voters means that we could face being out of power for generations.
Given my own background, and as someone who encourages young people from more diverse backgrounds to engage in politics, I am pained by this state of affairs, but not entirely puzzled. While our party struggled to attract different communities as generations of immigrants from Commonwealth countries settled here, Labour went out and actively recruited community leaders.
In the early days, our party had two responses. Some MPs and members, sadly, were plain racist, while others claimed that while Conservatives did not feel comfortable categorising people by their ethnicity or religion, our doors were open to individuals of all backgrounds. Then we scratched our heads as many of the new immigrants failed to walk through the doors of our local Conservative associations.
I used to think that if we could get enough people from our diverse communities elected, this would encourage more people of different backgrounds to vote, join and stand for our party. As the leader of a major pan-European political group in the European Parliament and as a London MEP, I used to think that just being here was enough. I was wrong. We all need to do more.
But rather than complaining about something we don’t like, I have always believed that I and others like me must be part of the change. That is why recently I brought together concerned Party members to examine these hard facts and work towards some solutions. Now we have published our deliberations.
The numbers make chastening reading. Conservatives have never succeeded in winning a significant proportion of the UK’s black and minority ethnic vote.
In the top 75 seats where half the BME populations lives, Labour has two thirds of the vote. Apart from one seat (Harrow East), there is a highly concerning trend that, when a seat reaches 30 per cent BME population it goes to Labour. In 2010, this applied to 75 seats. By 2022, it could apply to around 120 seats. When we consider the fact that BME populations are significantly under-registered compared to the wider population, we are in serious danger from a concerted voter registration drive by other parties.
For a while, it looked as though we were making progress. From just 11 per cent of the BME vote in 2005, our vote share rose to 16 per cent in 2010. There was further progress in 2015 but, in last year’s general election, this went into reverse. Labour’s lead among BME voters increased to 54 points – a swing of six points since 2015. Turnout among BME voters also increased six points, dishing us a double whammy.
Conservatives lost three of the top ten most diverse seats held before the election, including Croydon Central and Enfield Southgate. This followed the losses in 2015 of Ealing Central and Acton, Ilford North and Brentford and Isleworth. It will be hard to consider these even to be target seats unless there is a major reversal in fortunes.
If these trends continue, we will continue to lose London seats. Harrow East, Hendon and Finchley & Golders Green are at risk. Even Boris Johnson may be vulnerable in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, as Labour seem to have noticed, judging by their activity levels.
This is not just a London problem either. The median British seat now has a significant number of ethnic minority voters – over ten per cent meaning that BME voters could influence outcomes in seats as varied as Thurrock, Swansea West, Cambridge, St Albans, Stoke-on-Trent Central, Gloucester, Wokingham and Bromley & Chislehurst.
I believe that we can turn this around, but the work has to start now. Here are just some of the suggestions from the Engage LDN conference that I organised last year.
Outreach needs to be integral to everything the Party does: social media, press, candidates, research and campaigns – not just the responsibility of one department. And our Parliamentarians from more diverse communities need to be put on TV more. We need to make significant investment in our relevant “Friends Of” groups – in time, training and money. We should help them to sponsor social media content, and get members to become councillors and constituency officials.
Young potential BME candidates should benefit from tailored skills sessions provided by the candidates department- maybe a Diversity To Win strategy modelled on the Women2Win initiative championed by Theresa May. We need to start working with candidates as early as possible to support them in community engagement. Recently this approach resulted in 100 or so members of the Bangladeshi community helping out in campaigning in one seat.
In London, our mission has it be to create and communicate a new London Tories brand. If that means we have to be distinct from the national party, we should not rule it out – but also be aware that even in London there are huge differences between constituencies. What might be seen as a positive policy in Battersea may not work in Bromley. We need a localised London infrastructure with substantial finance, potentially outside CCHQ. In time, this could provide a model for our regions.
Some members feel that we need a BME advisory board at the national level and, in London, it would be useful to have some London-wide guidelines for outreach. At our grassroots and on the ground, we need to talk to people about their beliefs and our conservative beliefs.
Local campaigns need to be proactive in their outreach, and research their local BME communities thoroughly. We must train our associations in how to do so. Where community groups are struggling with local issues – be it poor local services or a planning issue over their community centre – we should be helping them navigate the process. We must be much more active in visiting community hubs and religious centres, offering our help: and we need fast rebuttals to attacks from opponents who seek to smear our reputation within certain communities.
For example, we should be clear about how we have dealt with any allegations of Islamaphobia in the Party. Failure to do so will allow the Hard Left to smear our party, in order to distract from their own very real problems with antisemitism.
We must confront this kind of talk vigorously; we must must make ourselves part of relevant communities (not just occasional visitors at election time), and we must take every opportunity to show by example what we mean by fairness, justice and equality of opportunity.
My parents, who came to this country during the 1950s and 1960s, used to tell me that there is no limit to what you can achieve if you believe in yourself and work hard. I joined the Conservative Party since its message of ambition and aspiration chimed with my parents’ advice.
But, if we want to be in power to help more people from all backgrounds to achieve their ambitions, we need to convince more people from diverse communities that we are the party for them.