In this summer of Brexit madness one topic did the rounds more than once. That is the debate on whether there is Islamophobia within the Conservative Party and whether the party supports diversity or not. Personally I feel the first airing was suspicious timed to distract from the Labour party’s discomfort on its attitude to anti-Semitism but Boris ill timed and unhelpful metaphor involving letterboxes and niqabs did not help.
On 1 June The Times’ Leader, ‘Isolating Islamophobia: The Conservative Party needs to tackle a perception that it is hostile to Muslims’, spoke many truths. For decades it has been known within the party that it has failed, and is failing, to attract anything like a decent share of votes from British ethnic communities. The situation is the bleakest when it comes to the Muslim vote. Many argue that the problem lies in socio-economic causes, such as a large proportion of Muslim votes, come from urban areas in the north and midlands where the Conservative vote has been destroyed. But this is a factor not an excuse. As The Times pointed out: ‘For a party which aims explicitly to attract small businesses and entrepreneurs this [the situation] is woeful’.
The Times is also correct in agreeing with Baroness Warsi that, ‘certain parts of the party have been in denial about this issue’. Baroness Warsi should know. As an ex Chairman of the Party she has been the one Muslim who had the authority to have challenged her own statement.
The trouble is short termism. I was once Director of Development–a title I chose for myself– to indicate my task was to ensure the Party’s conservative principles were made known to those who might not be counted as traditional Conservatives and that the hopes and fears of diverse communities were taken into account by party managers. Sadly I was the one and only Director of Development. The concept lost out to typical CCHQ in-fighting which overrode long-term planning, a disinterested management, and critically, a failure to embed policies and principles within the culture of the party.
In all the time I have been interested in attracting more members from diverse communities I never once attended an executive meeting within the party’s organization to discus a long-term vision for the party. For any organization, where it is going, how it intends to get there and who will take responsibility for the travel are fundamental questions. But too many Conservative politicians have reached for crude means of policy pronouncement, rather than organizational development, to wave a flag for inclusion. The Party needs both. However to achieve cultural change takes time, commitment and courage. It also takes a commitment from leaders at the top of the party to protect those who are the instruments of change.
In the late 1990s a start was made. Presentations were given at the Party Conferences to show that British ethnic communities were vital to the well being of the country and by definition to any political party. Some might remember The Absolutely Equal receptions at Party Conferences where diversity was celebrated. For a short period they became one of the most popular receptions of the conference where people are all shades, abilities and sexes danced together–they were in their beginnings fabulous! Dominic Grieve was asked by the then Chief Whip to help spread conservative messages. He worked assiduously hard by attending an assortment of community events which normally happened at weekends. In time he earned the trust of many communities. Above all potential candidates who were not of the recognizable Conservative mould were encouraged, supported and assured of a fair assessment system that was based on skills not background.
All these efforts died as those who had the responsibility to set a course for the future resorted to gimmickry and favourtism. The long-term needs of the party were sacrificed to those who could be counted on to agree rather than those who suggested discomfort by way of hard truths.
I personally do not think we have anything like institutional racism in the party. What we do have is far too much complacency, arrogance and frankly apathy. As in many organisations with a large membership there are some who espouse behaviours and attitudes that are outmoded and out of place in any political party. They should be dealt with judicially and quickly and the means of doing so made transparent. More needs to be done. I believe with the right support the culture and perception of the party could be changed but the demonstrative backing of the party leadership needs to be there, not just lip-service but in resources, ambition and commitment. Quick fixes have been proved to be unstable, and unsustainable, resulting in the same mistakes happening again and again.