A radical change to Tory immigration policy could transform 'shared values' into ethnic minority votes

It’s a cliché that many BME voters are naturally sympathetic to Conservative values, so why don't values make votes? An amnesty for illegal immigrants would make sense

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At the 2010 general election just 16 per cent of ethnic minority voters ticked the box marked Conservative while more than two thirds voted Labour. Our failure to appeal to ethnic minorities should send loud alarm bells ringing in Downing Street and Central Office. As Lord Ashcroft points out, ‘not being white was the single best predictor that somebody would not vote Conservative’ at the last election, more than age, gender, geographical location or household income.

Unless we act now this electoral penalty will only get worse. Ethnic minorities make up 8 per cent of the electorate, a figure which is on an upward trend and predicted to grow to at least 20 per cent by 2051. More importantly, we cannot claim to be the Conservative and Unionist Party if large numbers of non-white Britons continue to believe we aren’t capable of representing them.

It’s a cliché of this debate that many ethnic minority voters are naturally sympathetic to the Conservative values of hard work and free enterprise but still find themselves unable to support the Conservative party. I recently commissioned some polling to test this idea out, asking a sample of BME voters what they thought about flagship Conservative policies.

On the benefit cap, our poll saw 55 per cent of the sample in favour with only 15 per cent opposed. Support for raising the personal allowance to £10,000 saw 75 per cent in favour. 72 per cent agreed with our decision to ring-fence NHS spending, and 57 per cent supported devolving planning power to local authorities. As you might expect, immigration was further down our sample’s list of priorities compared to the population as a whole, but there was still support for Conservative positions. 41 per cent were in favour of reducing non-EU immigration with only 23 per cent opposed, while 66 per cent were in favour of charging non-residents to use the NHS.

Finally, when we asked which political party was most in touch with the needs of ethnic minorities 6 per cent said the Conservatives, compared to 53 per cent citing Labour.

This suggests to me that the problem isn’t primarily the Conservative policy platform. It’s far deeper than that, a gut feeling which says ‘these people aren’t on my side; they don’t have my best interests at heart.’ Partly this is a legacy issue. Though both were repudiated by the party, many non-white Britons have never forgotten Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ speech, nor the notorious slogan from the 1964 Smethwick election ‘if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour’. The handling of the Brixton riots, as well as the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, convinced many others we were indifferent at best, downright hostile at worst.

Given this history, it’s not going to be easy for us to gain the trust of ethnic minority voters who’ve never considered voting Conservative before. Under David Cameron the Parliamentary Party has become more representative of modern Britain, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this alone will fix our problem. Lord Ashcroft’s research suggests that some voters believe Tory MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds have only been accepted by the party because they are ‘rich’ or ‘posh’. Combating one stereotype can reinforce another.

It’s small comfort that we’re not alone in this predicament. The centre-right parties of Germany, France, Australia, and of course the United States, all face the prospect of long term electoral irrelevance. One nation does stand out from the international trend however: Canada. In 2006 an ethnic minority voter was three times more likely to vote Liberal than Conservative. In Canada’s 2011 federal election 42 per cent of voters born outside Canada voted Tory, a figure greater than Canadian born voters.

Just as in the UK, the Canadian Tories conducted polls and focus groups which showed that minorities were often conservative in outlook, but strongly averse to voting Tory. The Canadian Conservative Party’s answer was simple: start a dialogue. Party strategists would work to identify small, symbolic issues which mattered a lot to particular communities. The party would then get behind those issues to show it was listening. To gain the trust of Vietnamese-Canadians who’d arrived as refugees in the 70s for example, Conservatives issued a strong condemnation of Vietnam’s one-party state. As a gesture to the Croatian community the process of visa applications for the relatives of Croatian-Canadians was sped up, and so on. This wasn’t about dispensing patronage, it was about opening up a conversation. Once the party had got the attention of a particular community it then became much easier to get a hearing for its core messages on tax, crime and enterprise.

The same approach, a strategy of genuine dialogue rather than empty platitudes about ‘shared values’, should be tried here. One example of how this can work comes from my own community, the British Kurds. Earlier this year Conservative MPs led a debate in Parliament to formally recognise Saddam’s war against the Kurds as an act of genocide. This had a huge impact, I received hundreds of emails from British Kurds thanking me and the Party for our support and I firmly believe those people will now tune in when we engage them on other issues.

Yet some of the polling makes for such grim reading that you wonder if a more seismic shift in policy is needed to signal our good intentions. We shouldn’t be afraid to think outside of our comfort zone. In the United States Republican Party senior figures like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio now openly champion the idea of a temporary amnesty for illegal immigrants, as has Boris here in the UK.

Economically, a one-off amnesty would make sense. There are an estimated 570,000 illegal immigrants in the UK; this vast hidden economy cheats the Treasury out of billions while undercutting the pay and conditions of low income workers. At a time of austerity, moving these people into the legitimate economy has obvious attractions, not least because the state of UKBA’s backlog means they already enjoy effective amnesty.

Of course the objections are equally obvious: that we would be rewarding criminal behaviour and potentially putting further pressure on public funds. The latter could be solved by giving those under the amnesty leave to remain, with limited access to the benefits system, rather than full citizenship. For the former, I would suggest that the amnesty was part of a comprehensive reform of our borders policy, with more and tougher enforcement action against businesses employing illegal workers, and crucially, overhauling the long term international migration survey so that we finally have a realistic idea of who is actually here. It’s only because we’ve been so robust on immigration in government that we’re able to have this conversation with the electorate. We’ve earned the credibility to think outside the box.

This is not to say an amnesty should be in the next manifesto, but we do need a serious debate within the party about what needs to be done to improve our standing with ethnic minority voters. That’s why I’m delighted that David Skelton, the former deputy director of Policy Exchange, is founding a new campaign group, officially launched next month, to focus on winning Tory votes in the North, ethnic minority communities and urban areas.

What’s clear is that on their own the A-list and photo-ops of Cabinet Ministers at their local temple or mosque, are not enough. If we want to recreate the electoral triumphs of the 1980s we must be Thatcher-like in our willingness to think brave and think big.

The author is the Conservative MP for Stratford on Avon

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