Black Conservatives: Are the Tories the new party of diversity?
"In 2024, we can show ethnic minority working class voters that we are the party for them, too."
Throughout its long history the Conservative Party has found new ways to appeal to the ever-changing electorate. In 2024, Anita Boateng writes, the Tories can show ethnic minority working class voters that they are the party for them, too
“Eh, Theresa May!”
I turned to see who was calling me. I’d heard this nickname time and again from family friends over the Christmas holidays in Ghana last December, two weeks after the Conservatives romped to power in the 2019 general election.
I met the smiling eyes of a Ghanaian man dressed head to toe in a pristine white outfit – no mean feat in the heat and dust of an outdoor marquee. He told me he didn’t follow the election, but he knew why the Tory party had won. It was why they always won. “You told the people what they wanted to hear. That’s what the Conservatives are all about – victory!”.
I laughed and mentally prepared my riposte. “The Conservative party’s not about winning–,” I started. But the words stuck in my throat, while his rang in my ears.
The devil of it is, the Conservative party does win an awful lot. It is perhaps the world’s most successful political party. Yet, the Tory party has been rocked by existential fear of electoral oblivion for most of its political life. It has agonised over the erosion of the status quo – all while slowly adapting to whatever the new reality is, growing and building new coalitions of support with a pragmatism and commitment to sensible governance with every new decade.
We see this pattern in the Tory party’s record on race and ethnic diversity. In 2001, the Conservative party had no ethnic minority MPs. None. Twenty years later, the party has 22, and in the 2019 general election the party ran 76 black and minority ethnic candidates, a 72% increase on 2017. It has found in this diversity an enormous pool of talent and different Conservative ideological traditions. No one could deny this when looking at the first British Asian to run for prime minister, Sajid Javid; the first Black chairman of a main political party, James Cleverly; the first Muslim to attend Cabinet, Sayeeda Warsi; and the first female British-Asian Home Secretary, Priti Patel.
What accounts for this change in the Parliamentary party? First, the party has made modest progress in broadening its appeal to some ethnic minority voters, improving its pipeline of talent. Second, it started being vocal about wanting women and ethnic minorities and people from different backgrounds to become MPs. And finally, the party started winning elections. That last one really matters. You attract better candidates to stand for Parliament if they believe they have a good chance of becoming an MP (and because we’re Tories, eventually becoming prime minister).
The Conservatives don’t have to choose between venerating slaveowners and historical erasure, or between white working-class and black working-class boys
We can’t ignore Labour’s strength among ethnic minority voters in Britain. For many Afro-Caribbean people, England in the 1960s and 70s is not easily forgotten. Many first- and second-generation migrants faced open hostility when they arrived – made worse by the language and actions of some Conservative politicians. Black and Asian communities encountered harassment, rejection and the National Front. It was partly pragmatic to vote Labour, the party who introduced the Race Relations Act and elected Parliament’s first black MPs.
By the late 1970s and 80s, the Conservatives were running ads targeted squarely at the black community in the 1983 election, promising equal opportunities, better representation in the police and prosperity. It is nigh on impossible to track whether they made real progress during this time due to a lack of data. But nobody who has worked for the Conservative Party, as I did in the role of special adviser to the party chairman, can be in any doubt that the party has for decades tried to broaden its appeal among ethnic minority voters.
The Conservative party has made progress, in part because Black and ethnic minority communities are as diverse in their values and beliefs as the rest of the population. For example, migrants from west Africa and the Indian subcontinent with degrees also came to Britain and joined the professional classes. The Tory party, particularly under David Cameron, got better at attracting minority-community middle class voters. The ‘social conservatism’ of working-class ethnic groups can be oversimplified and exaggerated, but the values of the Conservative party do have the power to resonate. Where I grew up, on a council estate in Hackney in the 90s, working class parents of all backgrounds rubbed along together and agreed on two things: more discipline for their children in schools, and more studying from their children at home. My parents instilled in me ideals that have shaped my life – hard work, aspiration, education, personal responsibility, family, faith and community. These ideas are at the foundation of my attachment to the Conservative Party.
The Tory party under David Cameron also saw the importance of harnessing the talents of Conservative-considering black and minority ethnic Brits. In 2005, Cameron launched his ‘A-list’. This scheme encouraged Conservative associations to choose from this list of over 100 preferred candidates. Half the list were women and a significant minority were not white.
Black communities are as diverse in their values and beliefs as the rest of the population
The A-list was not uncontroversial, but the Tories did manage to avoid repeating some of their critiques of Labour’s diversity drives – including that Labour was too focused on putting ethnic minority MPs in seats with large ethnic minority populations. Without all-women or ethnic minority shortlists, majority white Conservative associations in majority white areas chose Kemi Badenoch and Rishi Sunak for seats with strong Tory support. They told prospective candidates in deeds as well as words that if they had talent, their ethnicity will not be a barrier to a seat – safe or winnable.
A quick glance at names on the A-list (not officially published, but compiled by Tory website ConservativeHome) suggests the Conservative party is still bearing the fruits of this strategy. 15 years on, over 40% of those on the list ended up as MPs. Eight have served in the Cabinet; five (Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Steve Barclay, Suella Braverman and Brandon Lewis) are there today. In these very different politicians, we can see how the Conservative party’s strength is found in its capacity to encompass a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and ideas.
I freely admit that this is a rather starry-eyed account of the Conservative party’s progress in representing and appealing to black and ethnic minority voters. But the Conservative Party’s enduring philosophic pragmatism means it can find a base of support in minority ethnic groups.
This year, political debate about the Black Lives Matter movement has too often descended into arguments about things no one really believes. The Conservative Party doesn’t have to choose between venerating slaveowners and historical erasure, or between white working-class and black working-class boys. When it comes to improving the lives of people across the country, we can be pro-having cake and pro-eating it.
The Conservative Party’s strength is in never standing still, and continually finding new ways to appeal to an ever-changing electorate. In 2010 and 2015 the Conservatives prosecuted the argument that aspirational, property-owning middle classes of every race should vote Tory. In 2017 and 2019, the party persuaded more working-class voters that the Tories weren’t just for the rich. In 2024, we can show ethnic minority working class voters that we are the party for them, too. We have come a long way, but we also have much farther to go.