Much has already been said about the fact that this election will unlock once undreamed-of seats for the Conservatives. If the current mood sustains, Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover, a core Labour constituency since its inception, is set to go blue for the first time. White working-class communities, for whom voting Labour has traditionally been a rite of passage, are deserting the party in droves.
Some may seek comfort in dismissing this election as a one-off caused by Brexit, and they are wrong. Brexit is merely a symptom of a wider trend where culture is fast becoming the pre-eminent demarcation of our politics. The weakening of class-based institutions such as trade unions and the ubiquity of social media has made culture wars a permanent feature of our political discourse.
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Labour’s response has been to take a clear stance against social conservatism, and therefore against much of its traditional base. Jeremy Corbyn, unlike his predecessors, barely makes an effort to accommodate the patriotic feelings of white working-class voters in England. Emily Thornberry, who was sacked from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet for a snobby tweet about the St George’s flag, now finds herself as the shadow foreign secretary.
Once the party of mining towns, Labour now relies heavily on the liberal wing of its disparate coalition, doubling down on metropolitan areas. Its core support has shifted from the white former industrial heartlands to ethnic minorities. This strategy has allowed Labour candidates in diverse metropolitan constituencies to receive record large majorities, with David Lammy in Tottenham increasing his from 23,564 in 2015 to 34,629 last time around.
It is not, however, a sustainable strategy for the long term, since Labour may soon find that a considerable number of non-white metropolitan voters are just as vulnerable to socially conservative arguments as its former base.
Already, ethnic minority voters are increasingly fragmenting in their political allegiances. While New Labour was able to win 80-90% of ethnic minority votes in 1997, Corbyn’s party won just 77% in 2017 in spite of its ability to rack up vote shares in metropolitan seats. Worse still, the proportion could tumble in this election, with a recent BMG Research poll suggesting only 40% are intending to vote Labour on December 12.
The potentially fatal consequences of this shift for Labour become evident when one looks at individual ethnic groups. British Indians, for instance, have in recent years become far more inclined to vote Conservative — a record 40% did so in 2017, up from 30% in 2010.
We should not, of course, analyse as a monolith the political tendencies of a vast range of ethnic groups that make up Britain’s ethnic minority community. Each ethnicity’s political identities are slightly different, forged by their unique history, and some groups vote far less as a block than others (and for various reasons).
It is therefore worth zeroing in on my own community, black Britons. It may be a numerically small group, making up just 3% of the UK population, but it has a vastly outsized influence over British culture. If the Conservative Party can change its relationship with this group, its reputation among all other ethnic minorities — and indeed the rest of the country — will vastly improve.
Though we should make no bones about the immense effort it would require, such change is eminently possible. If the future of British politics is going to be of continuous debates around cultural issues, a considerable number of black people, far more than those who currently vote Tory, are naturally liable to take the small-c conservative side of the argument.
The near-universal black support for Labour doesn’t derive from ideological purity but innate practicality. The perception of Labour as being the most anti-racist party has led to the forging of a kind of racial tradition of voting for it; black children are encouraged to continue the tradition upon their entry to adulthood in much the same way as white working-class children in former mining towns.
And whenever an election comes along, Labour cements the tradition with its cynical but often successful attempts to frame Conservative leaders as viscerally anti-black: “David Cameron is the descendant of slave owners”; “Theresa May deports Caribbean Britons for fun” or “Boris Johnson’s columns show a fervent hatred of Africans”.
But with Labour now joining the BNP in being one of only two British political parties to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the grounds of racial discrimination, their anti-racist brand has been severely damaged. In light of this, and amid ongoing debates over cultural issues such as gender identification, a route into the black community has presented itself for the Conservatives. It runs through the older generation — more specifically, first generation immigrants — for whom traditional conservative values run deep.
Take older black African Britons — a group which includes my mother (though she may not take kindly to the first word of that description). They tend to have immigrated from countries where a strong faith, whether Christianity or Islam, was instilled in them by an unabashedly religious education system. With those teachings came rules on modesty, an elevation of the family unit and an affinity for tradition. In other words, conservative values.
Their values did not vacate their minds when they arrived on British shores. On the contrary, they raised my generation of black Britons under staunchly conservative regimes. Their championing of high-earning career paths and entrepreneurship — rooted in an appreciation for the potentials of capitalism — has been credited for the disparity in exam results between black African children and white children from similar working-class backgrounds.
There is a similar theme with older black Caribbean Britons, more commonly known as the Windrush generation. They were largely born and raised in former British colonies, where developing a love of the motherland was part of the teaching process. Their schools actively encouraged monarchism and taught them about relatives who fought alongside British soldiers in two world wars.
Baroness Floella Benjamin’s captures this process in her account of going to school in Trinidad. She would “line up in the playground each day and sing ‘God save the Queen’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.”
I will never forget the time I visited the home of a 60-year-old Jamaican man who had been having trouble confirming his citizenship with the Home Office. I was using his story as a case study in my dissertation. Upon strolling into his living room, the first thing I saw was a large picture of the Queen hanging on his wall.
But there are differences between African and black Caribbeans in average socioeconomic status, and this may explain the increasingly divergent gap between the two groups’ Conservative vote share. In 2017, the black African vote for Conservatives was up to 14% from 11% in 2010, whereas the black Caribbean vote was down to 3% from 9%.
So, if first generation black Britons have proven so crucial to the development of their children and grandchildren, why wouldn’t they be as effective in fomenting the break-down of traditional Labour voting in their own households? If they are also prone to harbour traditional conservative values, why aren’t they considered a prime target for Conservative strategists?
To reach out to them, Conservative candidates — including the London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey — must change their approach in three ways.
First, stop avoiding Labour’s metropolitan heartlands. A majority as large as the one in Tottenham will of course have the natural effect of putting Conservative strategists off engaging with the sizeable black community there, but a multi-election approach that gradually breaks apart its political solidarity will bring long-term dividends. (It might be helpful to remind constituents that David Lammy’s home is not just a long distance away from their neglected estates, but not even in Tottenham at all.)
Second, start talking up conservative values — the family, the traditions, the church. Since the success of Thatcher’s economic message, and especially since the start of Cameron’s modernisation of the party, these messages have been shunned as “nasty” and put on the back burner. But they resonate in black churches. I regularly hear black preachers expressing views which, outside their church, would be considered alt-right. I’m not saying Conservatives should go that far, but you get the gist.
Third, there is a potent anti-Labour narrative just waiting to be deployed in black communities. Conservatives should ask, “You’ve voted for this party for decades, what have they done for you?” To his credit, Donald Trump did well with just this strategy in 2016. To much derision from the mainstream press, he told African-Americans that Democrats used them in elections and neglected them in office. It struck a chord: black support for Trump was 2.5 points higher than that achieved by Romney.
Last week, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted a message alongside a picture of him standing next to a black cleaner: “When Labour wins, the street cleaner wins, the nurse wins, the pensioner wins. We all win.” But just days earlier a Transport For London decision endorsed by the Labour mayor threatened the livelihoods of thousands of Uber drivers. The Conservatives missed an opportunity to emphasise that a vastly disproportionate number of those drivers come from ethnic minority backgrounds.
And when Labour announced that it intends to add colonial history to the school curriculum, the Conservatives missed an opportunity to push for more lessons on Britain’s role in ending the slave trade. Black British children should be taught in great detail about William Pitt The Younger and William Wilberforce — old Tories who led the parliamentary effort against it.
A sizeable chunk of the black vote is there for the taking if the Conservatives grasp the opportunity to proudly draw a distinction between their values and Labour’s.
The focus should be on the Nigerian grandma who attends church every Sunday. Once she feels comfortable enough to vote Conservative, she and thousands like her could change how their families, and then their communities, see politics. And if it sounds impossible, just look at what is happening in Bolsover.
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