General Election 2017: Why the Conservatives must break the BME glass ceiling

Binita Mehta-Parmar
The Prime Minister Holds A Cabinet Meeting At Chequers
The Tories must do more to increase BME representation in government and the workplace (Source: Getty)

During the opening salvoes of the General Election campaign, there has been much discussion of how Theresa May is attracting former UKIP and Labour voters, especially working class citizens disillusioned by Corbyn’s Labour. However, one electoral group that has been most resistant to supporting the Conservatives is black and minority ethnic (BME) voters.

In the past, the default position for BME voters has been to back Labour. The Tories were seen, whether fairly or not, as being at best indifferent and at worst hostile. In 2015, the Tories attracted 21 per cent of BME voters with Labour taking 65 per cent. In London, the Conservatives actually lost seats to Labour because of a lack of appeal to BME voters.

The has been exacerbated by the lack of non-white faces representing the Conservatives in Parliament. With just five Tory BME candidates in winnable seats for 2017, this imbalance is unlikely to change after this General Election.

Genuine representation

For the Conservatives, this is not just about widening their electoral appeal, it is about whether the party wants to genuinely represent every part of our country.

Importantly, there are growing signs of Labour vulnerability: over the past 20 years, the percentage of BME voters identifying with Labour has fallen from just under 80 per cent to 45 per cent for Indian voters and to 58 per cent for Black Africans.

The battle for BME votes matters: according to a recent Policy Exchange report, A Portrait of Modern Britain, the ethnic minority population is expected to double to 25-30 per cent by 2050. This is vital for London, given that 3.3m Londoners classify themselves as BME, around 40 per cent of the capital’s population.

So, the Conservatives must seize the opportunity that a fractious Labour party presents to prove genuine will to tackle deep injustices and disadvantages linked with race.

Glass ceiling

One obvious area for the Conservatives to tackle is the glass ceiling in the workplace that appears to be blocking the progress of those from an ethnic minority. Despite the huge success of certain BME communities at school and university, this is not being reflected to the same degree in the workplace. Even where they have the same qualifications, a candidate for a job called James is far more likely to get an interview than someone called Jamal. Look around the boards of Britain's biggest companies and you will find very few non-white faces.

Conservatives believe in a meritocracy, but it appears that talented BME employees are being held back by prejudice. The Conservatives acknowledging the extent of the problem is a vital first step. But then, in government, they need to develop solutions that incentivise private and public sector organisations to address this problem.

Academic achievements

More must also be done to help those BME communities whose academic achievements are consistently poor. The statistics on this are clear: Black Africans have the highest unemployment rate (18.3 per cent); 39 per cent of Pakistani and 42 per cent of Bangladeshi women have never worked. In contrast, 43 per cent of Indians work in the highest skilled professions. Much of this failure to succeed is related to poor results at school for pupils from Black African, Caribbean and Pakistani communities.

The Conservatives cannot afford to simply ignore this problem – and not just because of the impact it has on the life chances of those pupils, but for what is says about the Conservative government governing for all.

So, what can be done? More free schools in BME communities. Increased – and free – English language courses for anyone unable to speak or write English. And imagine if the first new grammar schools were opened in East Ham or Brixton or Brick Lane – what better way to signal the changing Conservative Party.

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