Hallelujah Hague puts faith in black vote

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Indy Politics

The Conservative Party leadership is targeting Britain's growing black evangelical churches in a pre-election drive to win new recruits.

The Conservative Party leadership is targeting Britain's growing black evangelical churches in a pre-election drive to win new recruits.

William Hague will launch a special unit called Renewing One Britain to woo African and Caribbean churchgoers later this month. He hopes it will counter the party's disastrous showing among black and Asian voters.

The public aim of the unit, backed by the Tory millionaire and chairman of Dixons Sir Stanley Kalms, is to develop policy for its election manifesto.

But the Independent on Sunday has learned from members of William Hague's team that its real aim is to act as a recruiting sergeant for the Conservatives, with black voters as a priority.

Despite last week's conference speeches portraying the Conservatives as an inclusive party, it does not not have a single black or Asian MP.

Black Pentecostal and evangelical churches have grown enormously in recent years, with 270,000 weekly worshippers and 3,000 churches. African and Caribbean Britons are more than twice as likely to attend church as their white counterparts and more than half the regular churchgoers in London are now black or Asian.

The Anglican church is quickly losing its reputation as the Tory party at prayer and increasingly it is the black Pentecostal churches and their conservative stance on social issues such as the family that seem in tune with William Hague's team. Senior Tories believe the party's emphasis on self-reliance and family values will prove attractive to black voters even though they have traditionally shunned the Tories.

Mr Hague has ordered the Shadow Cabinet to attend a "faith day" seminar with the leaders of all the major religions next month at Westminster where they will be addressed by leading figures from the black and Asian religious communities. The conference will explore issues such as marriage, the family, religious schools and religious broadcasting.

The Renewing One Britain unit will be headed by Tory race relations spokesman David Lidington. Its members include David Willetts, the social security spokesman, and Alastair Birt, a former minister and now a Tory candidate.

"I think there's a very strong parallel between our values and the values of the black evangelical churches," said David Willetts last night. "But what you have seen with William Hague addressing the black churches and with the launch of the new group is that we're making a real effort to reach out to the black community by appealing to the values that we both share."

The Renewing One Britain unit is likely to herald a significant shift in Tory policy towards the socially excluded, with more involvement from churches and voluntary groups. It follows Mr Hague's "Listening to Churches" exercise.

A committed Christian, Mr Birt said the churches are helping to shape Tory policy by demonstrating how faith communities can find alternative ways of rehabilitating people with drug problems, and coping with issues such as housing and homelessness.

With Church of England attendances in gradual decline, Mr Hague is determined to increase the number of Tory voters from minority faiths.

This is likely to prove difficult, according to Bob Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling group, who said that nine out of 10 black voters chose Labour at the last election. "They may get a few figureheads, but the black vote is pretty solidly Labour," he said. The black vote is also tiny in electoral terms, only about 2 per cent. I suspect this initiative will be pretty ineffective."

Mark Sturges, general director of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, Britain's largest grouping of 1,200 black churches, said that the Conservatives have a mountain to climb if they are to attract support from black voters.

Mr Sturges, who will address William Hague at November's conference, said: "A number of people in the black community feel the Tories have taken great pleasure in being nasty to minority groups."

Lord Taylor of Warwick, the black Conservative peer and former candidate for the Cheltenham constituency, described the move as a publicity exercise.

"You can't come out with this stuff six months before an election," he said. "I'm very cynical. In my view they know they haven't a cat in hell's chance of getting the black vote to any significant degree, but what they don't want to do is lose the support of mainstream Conservatives who may be alarmed by the move to the right. They have done everything they can to alienate the black community over the years."