The Conservative breakthrough

Drawing on several initial data sources from the General Election, Shamit Saggar asks how the Tories broke through among ethnic minorities in 2015, and what it means for the future.

The story of snatching victory from the jaws of deadlock, or even defeat, by the Conservatives in the 2015 General Election is and will remain the subject of considerable psephological interest. The election outcome is also a timely opportunity to revisit two related, long-standing puzzles in modern British democratic politics: the role played by ethnic minority voters in securing this victory; and, the long-standing inability of the Conservatives to erode their Labour rival’s dominant appeal among this electorate.

The conventional wisdom has been mostly sceptical in weighing up both the general impact of minorities on election outcomes and on the prospects for a Conservative breakthrough. The argument has held that black and Asian voters are too closely aligned to the interests and position of the Labour Party to make a Tory inroad likely or imminent for three reasons.

First, the structural socio-economic position of these minority populations has been tenuous. Many have been poorly educated, lightly represented in higher education, lack strong language or network skills, work in peripheral or declining sectors, and are slow to gain advantage economically. In political terms, their outlook has therefore remained close to the Labour Party’s historic concern with disadvantage and inequality.

Second, the Tories have historically profited from a long tail of public opposition to and resentment about a multi-ethnic society. The result is that minorities, potentially sympathetic to the Conservative cause, are repelled in practice. The roots of mistrust were laid early and deeply between the 1960s and 2000s, regularly punctuated by high profile rows over race in the Tory ranks. The Tory brand has thus been contaminated by allegations of ingrained racism and for this reason minorities have kept a distance.

Finally, the most fertile circumstances for a Tory breakthrough among these groups – when the Conservatives were gaining popularity among the general population (just three cycles of Tory revival during infrequent periods of Labour government unpopularity, 1968-70, 1977-79, 2008-10) – have delivered few Conservative breakthroughs among any traditionally under-represented groups. Tory leaderships have cared too little or have been distracted, and efforts to attract minorities have been mostly cosmetic as a result.

Meanwhile, many minorities, though not all, have risen socially and economically, and have offspring who have capitalised on such gains. In addition, upward social mobility is commonplace as an intrinsic value system among many recent immigrants groups, often by virtue of the immigrant-settlement dynamic. Furthermore, ethnicity has both declined as a predictor of life outcomes and personal choice.

The Conservative Party has in the past decade undertaken significant modernisation in its values, structures and actions, almost as an end in itself. Its earlier generations of anti-immigration die-hards have declined in absolute number, an important factor in ensuring that the party has lain to rest the ghost of Enoch Powell. And the demographic growth and geographic dispersal of minorities has created new potential spoils. Electoral necessity, in short, has created the most attractive rationale of all.

Background: rhetoric and representation

Before we examine the data, it is worth providing some background on how the Conservatives have approached ethnicity in its campaigning rhetoric and party structures. The modern party under Cameron-Osborne have eroded any intellectual and practical link between ethnicity and disadvantage. David Cameron’s only direct campaign address to a traditional minority audience took place a fortnight before the 2015 poll when he visited a Sikh Gurdwara in Croydon, south London. Not so surprisingly, the speech was mainly punctuated with sensitivities that have often defined the party’s long relationship with minorities (e.g. repudiation of the infamous Tebbit ‘cricket test’, rejection of the Powellite prophecy, and cautious advocacy of faith schools operated by minority groups).

But the moment demonstrates the minimalism of group targeting in the party’s strategy, a sharp contrast with previous elections. In saying so little to groups directly and separately, the party signaled that it had more to say to them collectively with the electorate at large. Any substantive policy offer was limited to a commitment to see all groups participate equally in society, echoing the party’s traditional attachment to colour-blindness.

However, the current leadership of the Conservative party has also paradoxically shown some sensitivity towards intangible obstacles facing ethnic minorities within the party. For instance, in modernising existing parliamentary candidate selection processes, a shift has taken place towards identifying and rewarding more objective criteria based on skills and experiences – thus driving greater gender and ethnic diversity objectives.

Getting on within the party, in other words, has been the subject of attention precisely because of doubts about the latent exclusion of promising, talented individuals. This has been accompanied by intermittent moments where local, arms-length party associations have been challenged and over-ruled by a central party that has backed particular candidates.

By May 2015 the Tories were able to field more minority parliamentary candidates than their Labour rivals – both absolutely and proportionately, swiftly reversing a pattern that had prevailed for half a century.

Table 1: Ethnic minority Conservative and Labour candidates, May 2015

Source: author’s calculations

The resulting new parliament not only comprises the greatest ethnic diversity than any before it, but also not dissimilar numbers of Tory and Labour MPs (11 against 15). Moreover, the single party mandate enjoyed by Cameron has freed up a larger tally of senior and junior ministerial appointments. For example, both Sajid Javid (appointed Business Secretary of State) and Priti Patel (appointed Employment Minister of State) hold formal and discretionary membership of the Cabinet respectively.

Both hold responsibility for core economic matters, have gained experience as Treasury junior ministers, and are linked to the expanded power base of the Chancellor (and First Secretary of State), George Osborne. This contrasts with the approach Cameron adopted in his first government, in which his only Cabinet-rank ethnic minority appointee was Sayeeda Warsi, a non-elected politician given charge of party matters as well as reaching out to ethnic minorities and combatting extremism.

Electoral behaviour: the last two elections

Onto the electoral data, beginning with 2010. The Conservatives were not starting from scratch in 2015. By 2010, the Tories were already carrying the weight of having not won a general election for almost two decades, and had a clearly articulated strategy of party modernisation (internally) and rebranding (externally).

Source: Ethnic Minority Election Study (EMBES), 2010

Source: Ethnic Minority Election Study (EMBES), 2010

Table 2 displays a stark truth, namely that around seven in ten of all black and Asian voters backed Labour in 2010, a year in which the party was nationally pushed back to its core vote and also entered opposition for the first time in thirteen years. Broadly speaking, they remained loyal to Labour during its electoral rout.

But the variations within this headline are important for our purposes. Indians stood out, a group long thought to be open to centre-right messages: a quarter supported the Conservatives in 2010, considerably more than any other sub-group. Furthermore, it is clear that Indians of Hindu background were far more attracted to the Conservatives than any minority sub-group by far: 36 per cent backed the Tories against just 20 per cent of Sikhs and 14 per cent of Muslims among Indians alone.

Onto the 2015 General Election, for which I use data from several primary sources. Comparing the two elections, Ipsos MORI data suggests that Conservative support surged rather more among minorities than whites (table 3).

Source: Ipsos-MORI ‘How Britain voted in 2015’ -

Source: Ipsos-MORI ‘How Britain voted in 2015’ –

This demonstrates that a Tory breakthrough is well underway among a key segment of minority voters. But, as has been said already, the minority average hides significant variations. For instance, a Survation/Bright Blue poll of Asian respondents showed that Indian backing for the Tories (43 per cent) massively exceeded that among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (14 and 12 per cent respectively) – more on this disaggregation below.

Different polls paint somewhat different pictures. The 2015 Survation/BF poll shows that overall support for the Conservatives in 2015 among minorities had climbed to 33 per cent. Equally, the Labour lead among minorities compared with ‘all voters’ in 2015 was a smaller 21 per cent. This is a remarkable headline in that it shows a significant degree of convergence in voting patterns across ethnic lines, driven by growing Tory popularity among some Asians alongside continuing Tory unpopularity among other minorities.

Labour’s overall support is more concentrated, geographically and demographically, than before. The party’s only real advances in 2015 occurred in 22 seats directly won in England, and these were in locations notably characterised by either significant (and growing) numbers of minorities or so-called ‘urban intellectuals’ (higher educated, white collar and attitudinally and culturally left-leaning).

For the Labour Party’s centrists this spells danger since it points to the party’s brand and values retreating into a core that is unlikely to be attractive beyond. Webber and Phillips have suggested that the Labour Party is headed to relying, within a generation, on minorities for half of its overall support. This is driven by its gradual retreat from places with few minorities, the growth in minority population groups, and the calcification of its narrow appeal. For the Tories, with fewer minority supporters, the Survation/Bright Blue data suggests that Indians deliver almost half of their entire haul of minority supporters. This is both positive (a clear breakthrough among a populous sub-group) and negative (it highlights the yawning gap among other sub-groups).

But the headline is only half the story, because minorities are also a growing proportion of the active electorate. The BF poll noted that minorities constituted 1 in 10 of all votes cast in 2015 – some 3 million votes – and up a significant degree on 2.5 million cast in 2010. Put another way, while an impressive 1.6 million minority votes went to Labour in 2015, and equally impressive 1 million minorities endorsed the Conservatives. These are substantial absolute numbers, for sure, and only moderated by the effects of where they were cast (usually safe strongholds). They also have an indirect bearing on the reliance of both main parties on black and Asian supporters, both currently and in the future.

Where the Tories were most able to capitalise on the 2010 baseline, and where they were not, begins to re-write the story of minority exceptionalism that has become so familiar to modern British politics. Take the recurring comparison made between Asian and white British voters. In 2015 the Tory vote share had grown to 38 per cent among the former, matching the share taken from whites.

One notable example of a local campaign to court Asian voters assiduously from 2010 to 2015 was the re-election efforts of Gavin Barwell, a younger generation Tory MP, in Croydon Central. His appeal included a revised and updated code of multiculturalism that has been “developing in a more pragmatic direction [and] that emphasises the importance of interaction and accommodation rather than top-down interventions”. The Conservatives nationally and locally remain on a journey, one which sees certain philosophical principles as settled while remaining surprisingly open to adaptation in appealing to local electorates seeking a halfway house alternative to Labour’s traditional offer.

The findings also suggest that the drivers behind rising Tory Asian support in 2015 were arguably many of the same factors as among whites. High among this list was Labour’s tactical misjudgement of the electoral lessons of both the economic crash under its watch, economic austerity under the Coalition and the strategic failure to connect with marginal, so-called aspirational voters in southern England. The main point is that the Asian vote is probably not best examined in isolation from the white vote.

Better understanding Asian voters

Disaggregating Asian voters in 2015 allows a clearer picture to emerge. This has a bearing on developing deeper party loyalties to assist the Conservatives during future periods of electoral unpopularity.

In 2015 Asian Tory support was far from evenly spread: the evidence points to ethnic Indian voters, and particularly those located in the southern part of England, who were male, above 55 years of age, and from Hindu or Sikh religious backgrounds:

  • Faith. Almost half of Hindus and Sikhs (49 per cent respectively) surveyed voted for the Conservatives, as compared with only a quarter of Muslims (25 per cent).
  • Geography. Tory voting among minorities peaked in the South at 40 per cent, far above the Midlands (28 per cent) and the North (26 per cent). This almost vanishes altogether in Scotland (15 per cent) where the traditional pull of Labour and the SNP are complicating factors. Interestingly, the Tory result in London was somewhere in-between (34 per cent), providing another heavy hint that the London factor remained a big obstacle for the Tories among both the larger electorate and among minorities.
  • Age. As expected, the Tories have an unevenly shaped reservoir of support from older and younger voters. This common finding is replicated among minorities to a substantial extent: from 29 per cent among 18-34 year-olds, to 34 per cent among 35-54 years-olds, and peaking at 42 per cent among those older than 55 years. Such similarity with white voters exists on one hand; however, most minority groups are younger in their age structure than the white majority. This creates a bind for Tories seeking to breakthrough, for sure. What will be interesting is how far the party’s strength among younger cohorts of minority voters (around three in ten) will enable a solid foundation to develop as these voters age.
  • Gender. There is a modest yet significant gender gap worth noting in addition. Men (35 per cent) more than women (30 per cent) favoured the Conservatives in 2015, with reverse patterns of support for the Tories’ main rivals.
  • Registration and turnout. Electoral Commission data indicates that the size of the would-be electorate has risen most in ethnically diverse constituencies. This might imply that, all things considered, minorities have been more determined than their white counterparts to make use of their democratic rights in 2015. It is too early to tell for certain. Turnout figures from this poll point to a clear Asian-specific effect (82 per cent claimed to have voted as against 74 per cent of black respondents).
  • White concentrations and white/minority mixing. The major parties’ performance in 2015 appears also to have been influenced by the background levels of white British people in each constituency. This shows that places with higher of proportions of white British residents served the interests of the Conservatives (and UKIP) in voting terms; conversely, these were the places where Labour did worse than its national performance.
  • Conclusions: refining the Tory message

    There has historically been a lurking danger of the Tories relying on white British voters. This has created a myopia and unrealism in senior discussions about electoral strategy. But this is starting to be offset by three connected processes: solid Tory advance among Indians directly; substantiating the current Tory appeal towards upwardly mobile second and third generation minorities; and the steady geographic dispersal of minorities.

    This story-within-a-story matters in terms of getting a fix on the long-term strategy of the Conservatives in building out its base. Specifically, it highlights the party’s willingness to capitalise on positive trends apparent among some minorities, alongside the party’s instincts to base its message on mainstream issues and concerns. And the Tories, like their rivals, have in the past often addressed minorities in rather different terms: dwelling on immigration and cultural and religious diversity, and relying on influencing small numbers of so-called community leaders. Each risks widening the gulf in their tone among one group of voters to another.

    A Conservative breakthrough among Indians was already underway before 2015 and the recent General Election consolidated this position. This is pivotal for a party that has not won an election outright in a generation and has had many false dawns appealing to minority voters.

    That said, there are uncertainties regarding the depth and endurance of the party’s appeal. A particular test will be the party’s ability to appeal to a younger cohort of Indians, echoing the strength among older ones already. A more ambitious strategy will be to appeal to minorities who remained loyal to Labour rather than one that concentrates on Indians especially. But both will depend on how far the Conservative’s evolving internal creed and ethos dwells on one-dimensional ethnic identity and welcomes ethnic pluralism as a new norm. Moreover, the Conservatives’ revival among the electorate at large, and ethnicity-related twists within, appear to be curiously interwoven stories.