Operation Black Vote could well have ended the Tory summer cheer. Only 16 per cent of ethnic minorities voted for the Conservatives in 2010, compared to 68 per cent who voted for Labour. And, thanks to changing demographics and aggressive voter registration efforts – over 500 people registered to vote at an OBV event at a Church in Birmingham last week – the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) vote could be 20 per cent higher in 2015 than 2010.
All of which is very bad news for the Conservatives. While the minority vote has traditionally been concentrated in urban Labour strongholds, it is increasingly migrating away from big city centres. Tory seats like North Warwickshire, Oxford West & Abingdon, Sherwood, Hove and Gloucester could all be lost to Labour thanks to nothing more than the growth of the BME vote. There are 61 Tory-held seats in which Labour are the main challengers and the BME vote is greater than the sitting MP’s majority. The only consolation for the Conservatives is that the Lib Dems, who have only ever had one ethnic minority MP, are even less popular among ethnic minorities.
The Conservatives are becoming better at talking about their problem. Lord Ashcroft has implored the party to take the challenge of winning the BME vote seriously, and David Cameron has put Tory vice-chair Alok Sharma in charge of boosting the party’s appeal with ethnic minorities. There are now 11 Tory ethnic minority MPs, only five fewer than Labour.
Theresa May has recently ordered a review of police stop and search powers, which minorities view as being more about racial profiling than stopping criminals. It is no exaggeration to say this could be the single most important stage in the Conservatives transforming their standing among ethnic minorities.
Other Tories have called for greater urgency. Boris Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi support an amnesty on illegal immigrants. That’s exactly what Republicans are about to vote for in America after observing how demographic trends destroyed Mitt Romney’s campaign. But the case for an amnesty extends beyond politics. There are over half a million illegal immigrants in the UK; an amnesty would bring them into the tax system and, as Zahawi has argued, provide a significant economic boost.
But a a combination of the vans stunt, and the bragging on the Home Office Twitter feed about the number of illegal immigrants arrested, may have undone any Tory gains made with ethnic minorities. Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, says minorities feel that there is a “perception of demonisation of people of colour and that could have a negative effect at the ballot box”. Especially for the Conservatives: their race deficit is expected to cost them 20-40 seats in 2015.
It does not have to be this way. The black newspaper The Voice last month asked “Is Labour Losing The Black Vote?”, a charge that will intensify after the debacle of Chris Bryant’s speech. As Woolley says of the BME community, “many are conservative with a small ‘c’ by instinct and there’s a growing affluent class.” If the Conservatives reform stop and search and invesitigate an amnesty for illegal immigrants, defeat by demographics is not inevitable. But they are making it too easy for Labour to hold on to the ethnic minority vote by default.