Leaders accept need for more ethnic members

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Tory leaders last night sought to soften the party's image as a racist, xenophobic organisation and admitted they needed to target ethnic minorities to win the next election.

Tory leaders last night sought to soften the party's image as a racist, xenophobic organisation and admitted they needed to target ethnic minorities to win the next election.

It was "absolutely vital" the party understood the need to attract people "from different communities, cultures and backgrounds. Otherwise we cannot govern for all," Andrew Lansley, shadow Cabinet Office minister, said at The Independent's fringe meeting, "How can Conservatives make friends and influence people?"

Mr Lansley, who disclosed that he would give more details on the issue today, said accusations of racism and xenophobia were a "Labour smear".

Addressing criticism on the party's stance on asylum and immigration, he said: "We have to be able to engage in the merits of these issues and make valid criticisms and not be reduced to Labour's characterisations of our position and their smears." He also denied the party was "jumping on bandwagons" and said it was planned to make last weekend's announcement on pensions three weeks ago. "It was decided to delay the announcement because of the fuel crisis. So we can hardly be accused of opportunism."

Delegates also clashed over the party's stance on homosexuals following the defection of Steven Norris' former adviser, Ivan Massow, who is openly gay. John Redwood, chairman of the Tories' parliamentary campaign unit, said: "I do not believe it a good idea to look at people on the basis of their ethnicity and sexual orientation, because it could be divisive and problematic."

A delegate from Beckenham said the Tories would not win the next election, and particularly not seats in London, if gays felt prejudice were part of their agenda.

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