by BARNIE CHOUDHURY
Former BBC journalist
The humble cabbie is my go-to when I want to know what is happening in a place that I’ve never visited before. They are priceless when you want authentic, unvarnished and unpalatable views.
So, meet Shahid, an immigrant Muslim who has been ferrying people for more than 20 years. Not only that, as an immigrant, he has understood that working for one firm pays the bills, but toiling 18 hours a day means he is able to afford the little luxuries in life.
Get him started on the subject of politics, and Shahid does not pause for breath. In his view, all the parties are “f***** useless”. Brexit has made the UK more racist. Boris and the Tories hate people of colour, and Labour takes the south Asian vote for granted. Don’t start him on the Lib Dems, and never mention UKIP or the Brexit Party.
A typical immigrant dissing his country, showing no loyalty? Not quite. Shahid has three science degrees, loves the UK, but prefers the autonomy of self-employment. No EU directive for him limiting how many hours he works. He invests his hard-earned money in property because he knows, recession or not, bricks and mortar rise in price over time.
Shahid’s story is repeated up and down the country and is as old as time. Immigrants tend to work much harder, for much longer hours, and they are usually much more entrepreneurial. Perfect voters to be wooed by Boris. Yet the Conservatives are about to sleepwalk once again to electoral disaster when a simple nudge of the strategy tiller would guarantee them a workable majority in parliament.
The fact is that no one knows how many ethnic minority votes are up for grabs. According to the Runnymede Trust, about 4.8 million are eligible to vote. That’s more than the 4.1 million voters in the whole of Scotland. Think about that and do the maths. In villages, towns and cities, ethnic voters can decide this country’s fate, and yet the parties focus on dog-whistle politics instead of concentrating on a core constituency with swing voters.
Prime minister Boris Johnson may have the most racially diverse cabinet ever, but his Conservative party has alienated Bangladeshis and Pakistanis with its hostile-environment immigration policies, social deprivation and lack of educational attainment. They see white immigrants from eastern Europe being favoured despite their loyalty to the Empire over centuries. Further, Boris’s racist utterances are a sure way of alienating key voters whose natural home should be his party. Family values. Self-reliance over big government. Enterprise.
Now to Indians. Almost 40 per cent voted to leave the EU, according to researchers at the University of Oslo. Break that figure down further, and the Ashcroft Polls suggest that over 50 per cent of Sikhs were Brexiteers. Yet the Tories remain focused on winning over white working-class constituents. We know that Labour usually wins about 70 per cent of the ethnic vote, but it really has failed to capitalise on people who decided many seats in London in 2017. What’s more, Labour’s stance over the current Kashmir situation will alienate Hindu voters. No one said politics was easy, but why on earth can’t our politicians learn from history.
It is not about appeasing minorities. It is about truly embracing and engaging them. You only need to study Tony Blair’s 1997 victory and Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1979, a generation before.
In 1997, the governing party had stopped listening and Blair fought his party, presenting a new vision which attracted all constituents, including ethnic minorities. Thatcher, meanwhile, produced policies which would appeal to those who wanted prosperity and the right to buy their own home. Erm, south Asians?
There are other lessons too. In the United States, every politician knows that electioneering starts the day after being voted in. Say what you will about US president Donald Trump, and I have, but he gets that. He has not stopped electioneering, and that is why he will probably get a second term. Boris may be in electioneering mode, but he will not succeed while he ignores the south Asian base.
To get south Asians to vote for you is not difficult. Find out forensically what they want. Treat them with respect and not as fools. Be honest. Some things are possible, others are more difficult to deliver. Whatever you do, do not over-promise and under-deliver. We have had enough of that.
As for Shahid? Unusually for a Muslim, he voted Tory in 2017. Why? Because his MP delivered on a promise that affected his family, and he remembered Shahid and greeted him when he went to vote.
In this age of social media, artificial intelligence and algorithms, parties have forgotten that politics is very personal, and a little act goes a long way.