Imagine a Conservative Party that represents the majority of a nation’s ethnic minorities, winning in all the most diverse, large cities and enjoying record levels of support from immigrants. Impossible? The proposition may sound far-fetched, but this is the reality in Canada. Over the past decade, the Canadian Conservatives have won over minority voters with dazzling success whilst remaining committed to conservative principles.
As minority voters become an ever more significant part of the British electorate, the Canadian experience offers valuable lessons for political campaigners here.
The Canadian Conservatives were once portrayed as out-of-touch, anti-immigrant and downright hostile to minorities. A Canadian minority voter was three times more likely to vote for the left-leaning Liberal Party. Today, Canadian Conservatives have not just drawn level but actually outpoll Liberals amongst immigrants and ethnic minorities, and have won three elections.
The architect of this success is Jason Kenney, a senior Minister in the Conservative government. His insight was that minorities shared Conservative ideals of aspiration, hard work, faith and a smaller state, but did not “vote their values” because of the “static” of their accumulated misperceptions. So he came up with a series of low-cost, symbolic and emotive policies for each community. These policies served as door openers. By demonstrating that Conservatives understood the distinct needs of different groups, he was able to break through the noise and earn a hearing for the broader Conservative message on taxes, crime and opportunity.
The first of these micro policies was an apology for the Chinese Head Tax, a fee levied on each Chinese immigrant to Canada during the early 20th Century. Coupled with the apology came a limited but meaningful restitution programme. Other micro-policies included lifting or simplifying visa requirements for Polish and Croatians on visitor visas; recognition of the Armenian and Ukrainian genocides; and approval of the refugee status of a Burmese opposition leader. These policies affected only small parts of the population but strongly signalled that the Canadian Conservatives were on the side of each minority group.
Kenney was only able to come up with these policies after spending countless hours engaging locally and listening. It was meticulous work and Kenney earned an award from his colleagues as the “hardest working MP” in Canada. He emphasised the importance of personal contact for new immigrants – the political party that engages first has an opportunity to frame how new arrivals perceive that party and its motivations. To this day, Kenney is immersed in ethnic media to ensure his party’s message is getting through to people.
His task was made easier by clear support from the top. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, led by example when it came to community engagement and spoke often to his Party about the importance of the Kenney’s mission. Harper created an Office of Religious Freedoms to promote tolerance and defend all faiths both domestically and internationally. And by putting one his most trusted and senior lieutenants, an establishment figure, in charge of the project, Harper sent a clear signal to minority communities that they were a priority.
The UK has already imported another Canadian, Mark Carney, to run the Bank of England. What can it learn from Jason Kenney?
In Labour circles, senior figures are concerned Labour is taking its support from ethnic minorities for granted. The new, young minority voters entering the electorate are less likely to instinctively vote Labour for historic reasons the same way their grandparents do. Unless the Labour Party offers something fresh and relevant to this new generation, it is unlikely to retain their support.
Back in 2010, the Conservative Party was in a similar state to the Canadian Conservatives of a decade ago, with minority voters here four times more likely to vote for Labour in the last general election. But recent research highlights how the Tories are making progress with upwardly mobile minorities and the party appears to have been applying the lessons from Canada.
Two years ago the Prime Minister appointed Alok Sharma as Conservative Vice Chairman in charge of engaging with minority communities, supported by a team at the party HQ. The Prime Minister and senior ministers like Michael Gove and George Osborne can regularly be seen at community events like the Asian Business Awards, the Curry Awards and leading temples. Gavin Barwell in Croydon is one of a new breed of Conservative MPs, built in the Jason Kenney mould, engaging intelligently with minority communities. Sajid Javid, a British Pakistani, is in the Cabinet and touted as a future party leader. And with Government focus on reforming Stop and Search, adapting motorcycle and hard hat rules for turbaned Sikhs, and ending mixed-sex hospital wards, the Conservatives are developing a slate of micro policies that can serve as the door openers for further engagement with minority groups.
Jason Kenney and the Canadian Conservatives demonstrated there was nothing inevitable about the link between ethnic minorities and parties of the left. The British Conservative Party is starting to look like it knows how to break that link too.
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