The Conservative party’s problem in attracting voters from ethnic minorities could cost them nine seats at the next election, and up to 50 by the middle of the next decade, according to new research.
Analysis by the Runnymede Trust thinktank suggests David Cameron’s party must redouble its efforts to engage this growing group of voters, particularly in the capital.
The Tories attracted just 16% minority support in 2010, and demographic movements by minorities from urban areas into suburbs could put their share of the vote at risk in seats that may be Conservative-held or marginal, the report says.
By comparing data from the 2011 census with that of a decade before, researchers tracked the movement of minorities into knife-edged constituencies, and then factored in previously known party allegiances, particularly the reluctance of many specific minority groups to vote Tory.
Omar Khan, the trust’s director, said the census data showed that the number of constituencies in which more than 40% of the population were black and minority ethnic had risen from seven to 49.
The analysis suggests nine seats could be affected by these demographic changes in next month’s election. Khan said: “While vast majority of seats had very small BME [black and minority ethnic] populations in 1992 ... there could be 5,000 extra BME voters in hundreds of seats in the 2025 election compared to 2010.”
The Conservatives may also struggle in seats where minority voters are not dominant but increasingly significant. “It’s not only that Britain has witnessed a growth in the number of seats in London, Birmingham and Bradford where there are large urban black and minority ethnic populations,” Khan writes in Race and Elections, a new study published on Monday.
“The number of seats with 15% BME residents has similarly risen, from only 50 in 1981 to over 150 in 2011.”
The change has been rapid. In 2011, a third of seats had a BME population of 11% or more, up from 5% in 2001.
“These seats where BME voters will affect the outcome ranging from outer London and suburban locations to smaller or university towns, areas that were typically only 5% BME just a decade or so ago,” said Khan.
Some experts believe the Tories have already been seriously affected by their failure to attract a meaningful ethnic minority vote. Research by the British Future thinktank suggests the Conservatives would have won a majority in 2010 had the ethnic mix of the electorate been the same as in 1992.
The party attracts support from more affluent minority groups, but it struggles to cast off negative associations with racist pronouncements such as Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.
The Tories’ focus on immigration levels is also thought to repel minorities, not least migrants. Almost four million people born overseas will be eligible to vote in May.
Party officials acknowledge their branding problem will take time to fix, but say immediate measures are already having an effect. “Today we have record numbers of BME candidates standing for the Conservative party at the election in May,” said the party’s chairman, Grant Shapps. “Hardworking, aspirational people who want to build a better future for their children, regardless of background, want to represent the Conservatives.”
He said the Tories had done much for minorities since 2010. “Record numbers of Black and Asian children leaving school with good GCSEs and going onto university, stop and search powers reformed, religious traditions protected. But we’re not complacent.”
Minorities’ voting loyalties
The new research, with analysis from a range of specialists, shows race and politics mired in complexity. Prof Anthony Heath of Nuffield College, Oxford, highlights the different loyalties of different minorities. Black African and Black Caribbean voters were far more likely to vote Labour in 2010, those from Bangladesh and Pakistan marginally less so. Almost a quarter of the Pakistani vote, however, angered by Labour’s involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, migrated to the Liberal Democrats.
Britain’s largest minority, Indians, particularly those from east Africa – are most likely to support the Conservatives. Just as some groups cite historical justification for not voting Tory, others have historical reasons for doing so. “The Conservatives under Edward Heath did grant entry to Britain for the east African Asians when they were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin,” Heath said.
He identifies traits that might help the Conservatives pursue minority support. “On the classic issue of cutting taxes verses increasing spending on health and social services, all the main ethnic minority groups are actually more in favour of cutting taxes than is the electorate as a whole.” Indians, he said, are “notable for their lack of support for high rates of immigration”.
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