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A change of tack

Print edition : Jan 02, 2004

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Following two successive electoral defeats and with the next general elections only about a year away, Britain's right-wing politicians find it necessary to change the habit of a lifetime and embrace ethnic minorities.

THE political Left has always been the natural home of the immigrant. In Britain, at least, anyone believing differently need only hark back to the infamous words of right-wing Conservative Party Member of Parliament Enoch Powell. In 1968, he said, referring to increasing immigration: "I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood." In 1978, Margaret Thatcher followed Powell's lead and strengthened the anti-immigration stance of the Conservatives by claiming that, "people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture". Times have changed, however, and the lead of the Labour Party over the Opposition, combined with an atmosphere of political correctness, means racist views no longer hold a credible place in British politics. Right-wing parties have also recognised that the voting power of ethnic minorities cannot be ignored. When the Labour Party came to power in the summer of 1997, its landslide victory owed a lot to the black and Asian votes.

A Market and Opinion Research International (MORI) poll following the 1997 general elections showed that 66 per cent of Asian voters and 82 per cent of black voters voted for Labour, much higher than the national total of 44 per cent. In comparison, the Conservatives gained only 22 per cent of the Asian vote.

But the election of the Labour Party has not meant the end of racial tension in Britain. Blacks and Asians, whether they be immigrants or British-born, now form a significant proportion of the British population. In two boroughs of London they have even approached majority status (60.6 per cent in Newham and 54.7 per cent in Brent). In the large cities of Leicester and Birmingham, Indians comprise almost one-third of the population. In the political arena, however, they are grossly under-represented. Despite high levels of immigration from the 1960s onwards, the first Asian to hold a seat in the House of Commons since 1929 was Keith Vaz of the Labour Party who was elected in 1987. There are only 12 ethnic minority MPs now in the 659-member House of Commons. Although non-whites consist of 6.7 per cent of the population, they make up only 1.8 per cent of the Commons.

The Labour government has done little to remedy the situation. In 2000, a black Labour Party member and the recently appointed Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), Trevor Philips, accused his own party of erecting "institutional barriers" to minority candidates wishing to become politicians. Since at least 40 per cent of Labour voters in London come from black and Asian communities, Philips surmised that at least 20 of the city's 57 Labour MPs should come from a racial minority. However, the actual figure in 2000 was only four. There are no clear reasons given as to why more ethnic minority candidates are not put up by the Labour Party, but MORI research following the 1997 and 2001 elections may offer the answer. MORI discovered that when in 2001 a non-white candidate was nominated to contest a seat formerly occupied by a white candidate, the share of the Labour vote dropped by an average of 4.4 per cent.

Sitting MPs of the Labour Party have also helped exacerbate the party's already fragile relations with the minorities. In 2002, one of them, Ann Cryer, accused Asian youth of gang violence and alleged that there was more violence in the Asian community than in the white community. In February, Phil Woolas, another MP, called for politicians to condemn racist violence against white people. The Anti-Nazi League was quick to condemn him for "holding the hand" of the ultra-nationalist British National Party (BNP). Over the past two years a good deal of controversy has come from an unlikely source - Home Secretary David Blunkett. He has been responsible for bringing in a number of anti-immigration measures, including the recent `citizenship test' to ensure that those wishing to hold a British passport have a degree of knowledge about British society. While calling for increased debate on race, he has also made a number of momentous gaffes. At one point he even used the word "swamping" to describe the influx of child asylum-seekers into British schools, echoing the word used by Thatcher over two decades earlier.

WITH the Left thus leaving the space for pro-minority sentiment vacant, the Conservative Party has taken the baton and run with it. Following their humiliating defeat in the 1997 general elections, the Tories were quick to realise that they could only win future elections by becoming more moderate and inclusive. Former Tory leader William Hague indeed seemed to have had a positive effect on the party; he proclaimed that he was committed to "rooting out racism and bigotry". Prior to the 2001 elections he even remarked that he wanted "Britain's first Muslim Prime Minister to be a Conservative". However, when the leadership was challenged in 2001, it became clear that members wanted the party to stay true to its right-wing roots. Iain Duncan Smith had close links with the father of the leader of the BNP. Early in his career Smith was also sponsored by a businessman who was associated with Enoch Powell.

Nevertheless, it became clear that the Black and Asian votes, which Labour had long taken for granted, was one of the unavoidable keys to electoral success. Smith wrote in The Times in 2001: "Under my leadership the Conservative Party will be open to everyone, whatever their colour, background, class or lifestyle... British Asians already share our values and outlook, as their commitment to family indicates." This latter comment is particularly significant. Although early immigrants to Britain were penniless factory workers, Asians in Britain are increasingly joining the middle-classes, tending to be independent business owners or educated professionals. The Tories have long been the party of `middle Britain', so efforts to attract Asian voters may not be as futile as they seem.

In October 2001, the Tory party appointed their first Asian vice-chairman, Shailesh Vara. Earlier this year Smith commented, with regard to the black vote: "The Conservative Party has been making all the running." It was this mind-set that produced a moment of pure irony this September: the Conservative Party chose an Asian businesswoman, Sandip Verma, as their candidate for the seat Enoch Powell once occupied, Wolverhampton South West, for the byelection that will take place next year. Although many people will welcome the apparent elimination of racism from the Tory party, it also means that the small minority of Britons who hold strongly racist views must turn elsewhere.

Recent years have, therefore, seen a worrying rise in the popularity of the far-right BNP. Once synonymous with racist thugs and ridiculous policies, the BNP has become a more coordinated force under the leadership of Cambridge University graduate Nick Griffin. The BNP has successfully played on the public's fears about immigrants and asylum seekers. The greatest card in the BNP's hand is the disillusionment of the British public with mainstream politics. With the Conservative Party apparently pandering to minorities, the BNP is harvesting some of the traditional right-wing vote. In August, a BNP councillor was elected in a Yorkshire town, bringing the tally of BNP councillors elected this year to an unprecedented 17. The BNP is fielding another four candidates in the coming byelections. The best efforts of anti-racism organisations have failed to combat the rise of the BNP.

Britain has yet to see in which direction the newly elected Conservative leader, Michael Howard, will take the party with respect to race relations. It seems likely he will carry on the trend started by Hague and Smith - during the leadership battle, Howard called upon the party to attract more ethnic minorities. But with Tony Bair's popularity at an all-time low, and the next general elections approaching in 2005, the softer image of the Conservatives needs to be viewed with caution. For all their rhetoric about embracing ethnic minorities, many people believe that the Tories may just be wolves in sheep's clothing.

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