What the Tories can’t learn from Canada

In attempting to solve their difficulties attracting ethnic minority voters, the Conservative party has little to learn from Canada, argues David Goodhart.

For the surprisingly small number of people in the Conservative party who worry about the long term implications of the party’s inability to attract Britain’s fast-growing ethnic minority electorate, the ‘Canadian model’ has become an important source of solace and inspiration. But the recent success of Canadian Conservatives with ethnic minority voters may not easily cross the Atlantic.

The raw facts are now quite well known. In Britain ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly back Labour. The number has been drifting down in recent years from 82 per cent in the landslide year of 1997 to 68 per cent in the defeat of 2010. But in 2010 the Conservatives attracted only 16 per cent of the minority vote.

There has been a shift to the Tories among relatively economically successful groups like people of Hindu Indian background, yet a much larger slice of the minority electorate has the socio-economic profile, and social attitudes, that suggests they should be voting Tory. Anti-immigrant rhetoric from Conservatives from the 1950s to the 1990s and their apparent ambivalence about racial justice in those years has kept much of the minority vote in the Labour camp despite a much closer alignment with Conservative values on everything from the family to small business.

In Canada this pattern has been broken. The Liberal party was the historic party of Canadian minorities and the creator of modern Canadian multiculturalism but the Conservatives have now wrestled away some of that minority support increasing their ethnic minority voter base from 9 per cent in 2000 to 31 per cent in 2011. Moreover, the party actually enjoyed a higher level of support among the foreign-born at the last election—42 per cent—than among the electorate overall.

This is a remarkable turnaround and no doubt Conservative political strategy and in particular the work of Jason Kenney, nicknamed the minister for ‘curry-in-a-hurry’ (though actually Minister for Employment and Multiculturalism), is entitled to claim some of the credit. Kenney says that the Canadian Conservatives are the only centre-right party in the world that wins a larger share of votes from immigrants than from native-born citizens. ‘I keep telling our cabinet that immigrants are our new base,’ he says.

Listening to Kenney speaking in London this June, delivering a lecture to the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange, he underlined two reasons for Conservative success in Canada. First, the importance of emphasising the degree of overlap between the small ‘c’ values of most immigrants and the policies of the Conservative party. Second, the importance of ‘showing up’: of engaging with minority communities and finding symbolic issues that illustrate how much you care.

But this shift in the political preferences of both immigrants and Canada’s settled minorities is not just the result of applying the common sense principles above. It also reflects the fact that Canada’s selective immigration system has become even more biased towards the well-qualified, middle-class newcomer in recent years. In 1980 about 25 per cent of all Canadian immigrants were degree-educated; in 2005, nearly 60 per cent were graduates. The equivalent figures for native Canadians was just 14.1 per cent and 19.9 per cent. The nature of the newcomers has also changed. Until the late 1960s Canada had a huge bias towards white European immigrants. In the past three decades well educated Chinese and Indian immigrants have dominated the inflows.

There was some hostility to non-white immigration in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, and to some degree again in the early 1990s, and it was articulated most by Conservative politicians, but it has left a much less significant political echo than in Britain. Moreover, since the late 1970s there has been a much greater national consensus around a Canadian idea of multiculturalism—consciously designed as distinct from the US idea of the melting pot—combined with acceptance of the economic benefit of large-scale immigration.

So, for two important reasons British Conservatives should not imagine that the Canadian experience is easily transferable. First, the British immigration story has been far less middle-class since the 1960s and many more British immigrants and descendants of immigrants are likely to be relatively poor, to work in relatively low-skilled jobs or in the public sector, all more ‘objective’ reasons for sticking with Labour. Second, there is no Canadian equivalent of Enoch Powell and the memory of active opposition to both immigration and immigrants from the political right in Britain that has left a scar on the minority political consciousness.

But there are some more complex problems too with the Kenney approach. Should liberals and conservatives so readily think of non-whites as primarily members of their ethnic group rather than as individual citizens? Kenney’s ‘curries-in-a-hurry’ are invariably shared with community leaders who are persuaded to deliver the votes of ‘their’ people in return for particular policies catering for the perceived interests of a particular minority. Can one justify using left-wing bloc vote methods to achieve conservative or liberal ends?

If reinforcing separateness and group rights is the price of multiculturalism then it is a price that Britain has become more reluctant to pay in recent years. And the different history of British and Canadian immigration means that group rights multiculturalism is more of a problem in Britain, because a higher proportion of post-war immigrants have come from traditional cultures that are harder to absorb into a modern liberal society.

Finally, the Canadian approach too readily assumes that there are no differences of interest between established citizens (of all colours and creeds) and new citizens. But on issues such as immigration itself and the speed with which newcomers gain access to the full social rights of citizenship there are differences. Although in the longer-term minority views about immigration tend to converge on the majority, in the short term immigrants often have an interest in immigration openness in order to bring in relatives. This tension may, again, be less of an issue in Canada where there is a more open attitude to immigration among the general population but in Britain appealing Kenney-style to minority leaders is not compatible with the popular British Tory attempt to bring immigration down to ‘tens of thousands’.

The differences in the immigration experience between Canada and Britain mean that Conservative Canadian successes cannot easily be replicated in Britain. Nonetheless, the Conservatives should and could be doing better than they are especially among the most successful minority groups. It is not healthy for British politics and the place of minorities in British society for the minority vote to be so concentrated in one political party.

And the Conservatives can still learn from their political allies in Canada in finding symbolic issues, particularly in relation to race equality, to highlight how much they have changed. Theresa May’s speech to last year’s Conservative conference on reducing the scale and increasing the effectiveness of stop and search may have been an example but it did not attract enough attention (and was watered down by No 10). The Tories need to find other symbolic issues, as well as continuing to promote minority figures such as Sajid Javid into senior positions.

Even without Kenney’s curries, minority Canadians would have started voting conservative in their own economic self-interest, though the curries may have speeded up the process a bit. But there are countries closer to home in Europe that show the centre-right can win over minorities when they become more settled and successful. One is Germany, where both the SPD and the Greens have lost almost a third of their Turkish minority supporters in the past decade, the main beneficiary being Angela Merkel’s CDU. A decade ago, the SPD could count on the support of 60 per cent of Turkish voters, by 2013 it had dropped to 42.9 per cent.

Perhaps British Conservatives should be looking as much to Berlin as Toronto for lessons on attracting minority voters.