The suburbs are changing – and so must the Tories

Published in The Guardian (October 2nd, 2013)

It is hard to think of a more suburban constituency than Mole Valley at the core of the Surrey commuter belt. This is a leafy oasis of middle-class dreams on the North Downs, with thriving towns such as Dorking and Leatherhead fringed by affluent villages. The National Trust is the biggest landowner. It is so solidly Conservative that even at the height of Blairmania it returned a Tory to parliament with a massive majority.

I grew up nearby and remember family walks on Box Hill, cycling to record shops in Claygate, and drinking in pubs in Esher. This is bedrock Britain for the Tories, where they say a donkey would get elected so long as it was wearing a blue rosette. But like other parts of the country, this is an area changing at breathtaking speed – and it contains a message the party ignores at its peril.

For the migrants who came to Britain in big numbers in recent decades are moving to the suburbs. This is not surprising. The last census showed white Britons to be a minority in London, and one-third of the capital’s population foreign born. As incoming communities make money and start families, many move out to the suburbs in search of bigger homes, better schools and safer environs, like generations before them.

This can be seen suddenly in Mole Valley. When I grew up there more than three decades ago, there were barely any ethnic minority families in Leatherhead. Now there are African lawyers, Asian doctors, Latvian cafe-owners, Polish barbers, Portuguese cleaners. There are 30 languages spoken locally – fewer than in nearby Guildford – and migrant families make up more than one in seven pupils in some primary schools.

Most moved in the past decade, and as communities become more established, the process speeds up. There is even a mosque in Dorking – which is just down the road from the setting for that ultimate 70s suburban sitcom, The Good Life. It opened with minimal fuss from neighbours, unlike in some inner-city areas.

Population growth is a sign of suburban success and renewal, but brings undoubted challenges. Surrey needs another 60 schools; it raised council tax to help fund an extra £100m a year on education expansion. Yet while the languages heard on the streets may have changed, the nature of these towns and villages has stayed largely the same. “This remains very much a Surrey community,” Tim Hall, a county councillor, told me. “The people moving here are aspirational, keen on community and focused on good education.”

Politically, however, this is dynamite that threatens the Conservative party. For these migrant families may share suburban values, but they do not share their politics. Research last year revealed only one in six ethnic minority voters supported the Tories at the last election. As Lord Ashcroft, the Tory grandee who funded the study, said: not being white was the best predictor that a person would not vote Conservative.

A new study by the British Future thinktank puts the problem in even starker perspective, showing that if just one in three ethnic minority voters had backed the Conservatives in 2010 the party would have won a majority government. In suburban seats such as Edgbaston and Selly Oak in Birmingham, they would have ousted Labour.

As migrant communities grow and fan out, this is an issue that will increase in intensity for the Tories. When pollsters drill down, non-white voters are deterred by the party’s past even when – as is often the case – they share their values and views. The Conservatives are seen as historically hostile: the party of Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit, that passed laws dividing migrant families and failed to stand up to apartheid in South Africa. This brand contamination is so strong that even when candidates from ethnic minorities are selected, they are seen as betraying their background.

The last presidential election in the United States demonstrated the dangers of ignoring non-white votes. Minority groups ensured Barack Obama won a second term, forcing soul-searching among Republicans. Yet neighbouring Canada showed attitudes can change – and change fast. In under a decade the Conservatives overturned an accepted wisdom that racial minorities always voted Liberal – more than tripling their vote from “new Canadians” with a sustained campaign of engagement backed by visa reform and a public apology for past misdeeds.

The Conservative party here has begun making similar moves, setting up a new unit to improve links with ethnic-minority communities. They have pushed national issues that play well with particular groups – such as the abolition of mixed hospital wards with Muslim women – and identified other targeted ideas, such as relaxing health and safety rules on headgear for Sikhs.

This is a welcome start. But it is undone when a harsh and unrelenting message on immigration shores up the idea that the party remains hostile. How else can one interpret vans touring the streets telling illegal entrants to go home? Or the home secretary seeking cheap applause at the party conference by announcing curbs on migrants’ appeal rights? Or, indeed, visa restrictions that make it so hard for visitors to come here from Africa and Asia for family events and holidays?

The Conservatives face a fundamental choice: do they want to chase the votes of pessimists who preferred Britain as it was in the past, or those people living in the real world as it is today? Especially when the danger is driving away their supporters of the future – whether young voters who are much more comfortable with immigration, or ethnic minorities who are an increasing political force.

As they finish their conference in Manchester today, they should reflect on how the idea of no Conservative councillors or MPs in this great city would once have seemed absurd. The party has withered away and died in large expanses of the north. At a time when party politics is decaying, this should serve as a warning: for if the Tories do not come to terms with the shifting shape of the suburbs, it could threaten their very existence.

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