UK's Conservative Party becomes more appealing to British minorities

UK's Conservative Party becomes more appealing to British minorities
Comment: Labour's shift to the right has pushed many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voters to the Conservative Party, but things might change under Jeremy Corbyn, says Tom Charles.
5 min read
29 Feb, 2016
Despite shifting stances, only 25 per cent of Muslims are inclined to vote Conservative [Anadolu]

Opinion polls have shown that the Conservative Party secured a historic one million Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) votes during the 2015 UK general election - a first in its history. For Labour, it suggested a period of soul searching if the centre-left party is ever to win back groups they once considered to be guaranteed votes.

The figures mean that approximately one third of BAME voters opted for the Tories, a marked trend away from Labour. The election also saw Labour's share of the BAME vote decline by 16 per cent, a remarkable figure that played a part in securing the Conservatives' election win.

Among Asians, the Labour-Conservative gap narrowed to 50 percent for Labour and 38 percent Tory. When broken down into religious groupings, the figures showed that only 25 percent of Muslims were inclined to vote Conservative. However, 49 per cent of Hindus and Sikhs preferred David Cameron's party to Ed Miliband's Labour.

Party Similarities

This remarkable political turnaround can partly be explained by the similarities found in the two parties' 2015 manifestos, where on many of the important issues the differences were limited to language and emphasis rather than substance. For example, the Conservatives focused on 'British values' while Labour emphasised individual freedoms, democracy and human rights.  

These interchangeable phrases amounted to token gestures as they were not backed up with detailed policy ideas. In the absence of a coherent world view, ideology or long-term strategy as to what the UK's role in the world is, voters are more likely to focus narrowly on their own immediate concerns. For many British Indians, as they move out of urban areas, their main concerns are increasingly on a stable UK economy and low taxes. This of course chimes with the Conservatives' key messages.

While Labour retains a clear majority in BAME votes, it is worth remembering that in the 1980s and 1990s Labour held up to 90 per cent of minority votes. As recently as 2010 the Conservatives could only secure 16 per cent of this section of the electorate.

Labour mugs itself

So, what happened? Labour's painstaking efforts to appear 'tough' on immigration culminated in the party selling a "Controls on Immigration" mug on its website. Media preoccupation with the far-right and the rise of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party played a part in pushing Labour to a stance on immigration that isolated traditional supporters. The party's posturing also revealed the extent to which its MPs and senior officers had internalised right-wing ideology, believing it could take the BAME vote for granted.

The ignominy of the mugs was indicative of a party that had lost its sense of self. While Labour had always been a broad church, by 2015 its decision to adopt centre-right economic ideology as its point of departure left the party with little room for maneuver. While the Conservatives shared many of Labour's moral failings, people at least knew where they stood with the Tories. In contrast, Labour appeared complacent and patronising.

Foreign Policy Lessons Not Learned

Foreign policy was a major cause for many BAME voters moving away from Labour. The 2011 parliamentary vote in favour of the disastrous military intervention in Libya was met with only 15 'no' votes compared to 557 in favour. This revealed what many had suspected for years: Labour had thoroughly failed to learn the electoral lessons of the invasion and destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The image of Labour as a party of war was confirmed, and Ed Miliband's House of Commons victories over intervention in Syria and recognition of a Palestinian state represented a variation in emphasis rather than a distinct foreign policy vision. Indeed, for most voters, memories of these parliamentary debates will have been short-lived, especially with the unravelling of Iraqi society. The rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq's political and security vacuum and the delays to the Chilcot Inquiry ensured that opinions about the Labour Party ranged from detestation to ambivalence. Few could see how a Labour Party which still feted Tony Blair would implement a vision in line with their own values.

This represents a significant change to the days when Labour could rely on anti-Tory sentiment in BAME communities. Like with the core votes in Scotland and the north of England, Labour's BAME complacency has cost them votes in key seats.

Conservatives' moderate image

As for the Conservatives, their once toxic image had changed somewhat by 2015. Overwhelming media support helped their cause, and David Cameron was presented as a moderate, ordinary man, despite his retrograde approach to both foreign and immigration policies, as well as his 'austerity' policies that have disproportionately hit BAME communities.

The Conservatives have also undertaken a serious look at their engagement with BAME Britain, fast tracking MPs from these communities to high-level positions in government. Even the resignation from the cabinet of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi in protest at the government's "morally indefensible"  Israel-Palestine policy in 2014, did not change the trajectory of the party's new image. The former PR man Cameron fronts the modern Tory image, but the Conservatives have positioned themselves well to take advantage of growing BAME antipathy towards Labour.

The rightward trend of the BAME vote should not be taken as a sign of a significant conversion to, or identification with, the Conservative Party. If Jeremy Corbyn can stabilise his leadership and put out a consistently clear and strong message on the economy, his Labour party will win back many of those floating BAME voters who opted for the Tories having been persuaded by their claims of economic competence. Corbyn's foreign policy credentials are beyond reproach, and if he can hold on to his leadership crown, this may help persuade BAME communities that Labour should be their preferred choice.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.