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Conservative minority ethnic MPs – and that statue of Elvis

Conservative minority ethnic MPs – and that statue of Elvis

🕔31.Mar 2015

It wasn’t quite up there with Sunday Sport’s famous “Statue of Elvis Found on Mars”, but last weekend’s Sunday Times’ headline “Tories may secure most ethnic MPs” still seemed pretty incredible.

After all, ten years ago, and 18 years after the all-Labour quartet of Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, and Keith Vaz were elected as the UK’s first modern-day black and minority ethnic (BME) MPs, the Conservatives didn’t have one.

Besides which, don’t even the Tories’ own leaders and their own peer-pollster, Lord Ashcroft, openly admit the party has a real electoral ethnic minority ‘problem’ – even getting their votes, let alone getting their local associations to select any as candidates in half-way winnable seats?

In 2010, for example, the Conservatives won less than a quarter of Labour’s share of the BME vote – 16% against 68%. If they’d been able to bridge the ‘ethnic gap’ and attract the same support from BME voters as from the electorate as a whole, they’d have won half a million more votes, taken 24 of Labour’s marginal seats, and formed a majority government.

So what’s happening? Are we in Elvis statue territory, or is this segment of the political world really changing?

Some things certainly have changed. First, while Labour may protest that it never took its BME vote for granted, it’s now losing it, and showing little sign of seriously trying to halt the drift.

In 1997, as shown in the graph, over three-quarters of voters from all major BME groups supported Labour. By 2010, that proportion had dropped significantly, especially among Indians and Pakistanis, and since then the trend has accelerated.

BME Vote







If these Labour deserters were flocking, or even moseying, towards the Conservatives, the impact in the West Midlands could be dramatic. For in Birmingham alone, as noted in a previous blog, five of Labour’s eight seats – Edgbaston, Hall Green, Erdington, Selly Oak, Northfield – plus Lib Dem Yardley, have potential BME electorates several times the size of their MP’s current majority.

So far, however, apart from a very modest increase in Conservative support among Indian voters, that seems not to be happening on any scale. Rather, as one commentator put it, while many ethnic minorities are increasingly lukewarm towards Labour, they still loathe the Conservative Party.

Which brings us to the second thing that’s changed, and to the study by the non-partisan think tank, British Future, that prompted the Sunday Times headline. For, while David Cameron and his party may be repellant to BME voters in general, at least some are climbing aboard in a big way and seeking to become parliamentary candidates.

Since 2005, under and partly prompted by David Cameron’s leadership, Conservative BME MPs have increased from none to 11, while Labour’s – representing, it should be remembered, more than twice the proportion of BME electors – have risen from 12 to just 16. The Lib Dems, incidentally and lamentably, have yet to elect a single one.

That present total of 27 (4%), if the 14% non-white population were represented proportionally in the House of Commons, would be close to 90 – and, in one respect at least, it is the Conservatives who are doing most to raise the proportion.

All 27 BME incumbents are standing again, which is an encouraging start, but a hundred or so of their colleagues won’t be, and at the most recent count new candidates had been selected in 86 of these constituencies: 39 Labour, 36 Conservative, 10 Lib Dems, 1 Plaid Cymru.

In what are obviously among the respective parties’ most winnable seats, the British Future study, The Race for Representation, found that Labour selectors have produced just two BME candidates, both in London, and the Lib Dems one, while Conservative selectors have managed a, by comparison, commendable seven.

If that were all there was to it, you could see how the Sunday Times got its headline. But of course it isn’t. There are all the marginal seats that may or may not change hands, allocated in the British Future study to the candidate whose party was the bookies’ favourite in early March to win the seat.

In Labour’s list of these target seats, 13 BME candidates have been selected – including Rebecca Blake in Redditch; in the Conservative list there was just one – and, yes, the tense is important, for it was the hapless and now de-selected Afzal Amin in Dudley North. All of which rather swings the BME balance back to Labour.

In order to make its predictions of the likely number of BME MPs in the next Parliament, the British Future study models five possible scenarios. All, it should be emphasized, produce a significant increase in BME MPs overall, probably to around 40. But it’s the party breakdown we’re interested in here.

One scenario has the two main parties neck and neck with around 275 seats each – similar to their positioning over the past few weeks. Labour’s gain of nearly 20 seats would contribute to its having a projected 24 BME MPs to the Conservatives’ 17, with one each for the Lib Dems (Bath), UKIP (Thurrock) and the SNP.

Any Labour plurality of seats would obviously increase its BME representation and decrease that of the Conservatives, and an improbable outright Labour majority would produce something like a 30-15 split.

In fact, it turns out that the only scenario that would justify the Sunday Times’ headline is the one outcome that virtually no one has thought possible – at least since the abandonment of the parliamentary boundary review in early 2013 – an outright Conservative majority. So, yes, definitely fantasy.

Still, it does make you wonder about that Elvis statue – OK, so NASA claimed that landing its Curiosity robot on Mars a few years ago was unprecedented, but how do they know?

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