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More than skin deep: winning the support of ethnic minority voters

This photo posted by President Obama on twitter became the most retweeted of all timeThe post-election analysis of President Obama’s victory just over a week ago has made for interesting reading this side of the Atlantic. Both the left and the right have looked to claim that the result is good news for them, and to be fair both have a point. Conservatives will take heart from the fact that Obama is the first leader of a major economy to have secured another term in office during the economic meltdown. Labour will be encouraged that Obama’s interventionist economic strategy has been endorsed at the ballot box. Below the headline reasons for the result (which can be argued either way), looking a little deeper into some of the numbers perhaps provide more important facts to take on board.

According to exit polls, Republican challenger Mitt Romney won 59%of the white vote. Obama was backed by 93% of black voters, 71% of Latinos and 60% of voters younger than 30. The Democrat campaign quite clearly built a more convincing coalition of voters than the Republican one, with ethnic minority voters absolutely crucial. You can therefore understand why Baroness Warsi has reportedly said that she believes the Tories have a ‘brand problem’ with ethnic minorities and will not win future elections until they solve it. Paul Goodman on ConHome highlights that Warsi believes the Conservative Party must learn from President Barack Obama’s recent triumph that the Tories “must win minorities to win majorities”.

Paul Goodman knows what he’s talking about when it comes to this subject. His ConHome article from April this year, Tokenism and ignorance: how the Conservative Party misplayed its hand with ethnic minority votes, was as breath-taking in its boldness as it was accurate in its observations. It still knocks me for six when reading it now, probably because it reminds me of some of the mistakes I’ve made myself.

The task of winning the support of more ethnic minority voters is crucial when you consider (as ConHome has highlighted) that just 16% of Britain’s ethnic minority voters backed the Tories at the 2010 general election. It led Downing Street’s polling and strategy adviser, Andrew Cooper, to comment that “the number-one driver of not voting Conservative is not being white”. It backs up Paul’s observations that mistakes of the past have cost the Conservative Party dear. Among these are relying on simply putting up impressive ethnic minority candidates (which doesn’t make much of a difference), and the assumption that “ethnic minority voters” can somehow be all grouped together. This sums up the tokenism and ignorance Paul was referring to.

While the Conservative Party is only managing to convince 16% of ethnic minority voters, Labour is winning the support of 68%. Such a gap is what the Canadian Conservative Party faced in 2000. Today, it is the dominant party among ethnic minority voters, who it calls “new Canadians”. Such a turnaround is utterly incredible and probably seemed like an impossible task when a new approach was first adopted just over a decade ago.

Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told Conservatives at a conference in March, “We have gone from a 50-point deficit vis-a-vis the Liberals amongst new Canadians in 2000 to a 24-point lead in this last election”. So strong is the support from new Canadians today that had it only been ethnic minorities voting, the Conservative parliamentary majority would have been even larger. “We apparently won the votes of 37% of Canadians born in the country, but 42% of immigrants to Canada… This is today’s Conservative Party. If it was just new Canadians who were voting, our majority would be even bigger.”

Surely UK Conservatives need to meet their Canadian counterparts and find out how they managed it? That’s precisely what the party has been doing. The advice from the Canadian Conservative Party can probably be summed up using another quote from Kenney:

“Sitting down, listening, showing people respect, not taking them for granted, delivering on symbolic and emotive issues that mattered, allowed us to get people to start giving us at least the benefit of the doubt, to begin tuning into our frequency and then realizing that their values were aligned with ours — on family, on the economy, on crime, on taxes, on democracy, on just about everything else.”

The advice from Kenney and others will already be invaluable, but it will become all the more important in years to come. Official estimates state that today ethnic minority voters make up 8% of the total UK population, but by 2050 the figure will be around 20%. This overall figure disguises the fact that in the East Midlands ethnic minority voters currently account for 10% of the electorate, in the West Midlands around 14% and in London over 30%. Key Conservative battleground constituencies in these regions cannot afford to be so far behind Labour in winning over ethnic minority voters.

It’s all about values. As the Canadian Conservatives realised and have proved, the crucial point here is that to win over ethnic minority voters the party needs to look at where BME voters’ values correspond to the Conservative party’s, and use this as the foundation for long-term engagement.

Not only does the UK Conservative Party now appear to have the right road, it’s also started travelling. This year has seen a number of “Conservative Friends of…” groups spring into life. While we’ve all heard of the Conservative Friends of Israel which launched decades ago and can boast 4,500 members, organisations like the Conservative Friends of India are new and result from the party’s new, long-term approach to engaging with ethnic minority voters. The driving force behind the impressive India team is Lord Popat of Harrow, who told me, “The two differences between Labour’s approach and ours, is that Labour engage, and they smile”. He was describing the way the Labour Party as an organisation has understood for a long time the importance of engaging over the long term, building relationships and earning the right to be heard. Only once you have this right can you begin to convince people you share the same values.

The role of these groups will be crucial over the next decade and beyond. Reassuringly, the process for forming one is rigorous. One of the first to pursue this model after the Conservative Friends of Israel was the Conservative Friends of Turkey. Ertan Hurer described the “sheer number of hoops we had to jump through” in order to achieve CCHQ’s approval.

The importance of having individual groups is that not only does it provide for a long term approach, it completely avoids the tokenism and ignorance Paul described. The Conservative message is not simply championed by a single parliamentary candidate of a BME background, in a single constituency backed by a local membership-based organisation (of whom most are not of a BME background). Instead the Conservative message is advanced by a membership-based organisation itself throughout the entire country, made up members from that particular BME background. The “symbolic and emotive issues” that matter can be identified and reported back to No. 10. The mistake of viewing all ethnic minority voters as a single group is entirely avoided, each Friends group tailoring their approach accordingly. The Conservative Friends of Pakistan can, for example, prioritise seeking to persuade second-generation British Pakistanis – lots of young professionals – who they think may be the most willing to listen and keenest to be heard.

The importance of creating a two-way conversation cannot be overstated, but even beginning the conversation itself can be difficult. Many Friends groups will no doubt start with the electoral register, marking up specific names to create a database with which to begin contacting people. But in some cases, perhaps with eastern Europeans who migrate to the UK for a relatively short time and do not settle in Britain, people do not even register to vote. The Conservative Friends of Poland will therefore have different challenges to, say, the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh.

For all of these groups the aim will be the same: to play a key part in what could be at least a 10 year process to make the Conservatives the dominant party in the UK among ethnic minority voters. But while their role will be crucial, the most important factor judging by the Canadian experience will be the direction from the top. The new approach requires a continuous drive from CCHQ, and to enjoy the backing of the whole Parliamentary party. In essence, unless the whole party shows it cares, the perception will persist that the party’s commitment to winning the support of ethnic minority voters is only skin deep.

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