JANE MERRICK: The Tories have a blind spot on Islamophobia
PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 March 2019
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As Labour's travails over anti-Semitism deepen, the Conservatives are showing themselves hopelessly tone deaf on diversity, reports JANE MERRICK.
When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party in 2005, he was keen to promote diversity among his MPs and shadow cabinet – to put the modernising pledges of his leadership campaign into practice.
Cameron promoted Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman to be selected to stand for parliament by the Conservatives, as party vice chairman, and gave her a peerage so she could sit in the shadow cabinet.
Under Cameron’s premiership, Baroness Warsi became the first Muslim woman to attend cabinet. Regardless of Cameron’s record on Brexit, he did attempt to make the top of the Tory party look more like Britain in the 21st century.
Today, the Conservatives risk retreating from this modernising position, into what the current prime minister many years ago referred to as the “nasty party”.
It is true that Theresa May made Sajid Javid the first Muslim home secretary, but there are signs the party has an alarming blindspot on the extent of Islamophobia in its ranks.
Last Sunday, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was asked on the Andrew Marr Show about what the Tory party was doing to tackle incidents of anti-Muslim hatred by councillors and activists.
Hunt replied that he could not “pretend that we don’t have identified instances” adding: “We’re not going to close our ears”. But the foreign secretary then turned to Labour’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism – and as a result, if not completely closing his ears, engaged in some pretty serious deflection in order to not listen to the problem. This has been the line from other Tory MPs when put on the spot about Islamophobia, as if Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism cancels out the vile hatred and abuse, often on social media, from some Conservatives about Muslims.
It is too indulgent to say that the government is distracted by Brexit to such an extent that it cannot deal with internal party matters. Yes, some attention has been turned to Tory Islamophobia, just as the Brexit process reaches its critical stage. And yet ignorance – and in some cases, it is a wilful ignorance – to the matter is not an excuse. In fact, abuse against Muslims has risen – as have anti-Semitic harassment and attacks – in the wake of the anti-immigration rhetoric stoked up during the referendum campaign.
This does not make all Leavers guilty of xenophobia, but Brexit has created a safe space for racist abuse to flourish. As such, it is the responsibility of the party and government who brought us Brexit to take a vocal and principled stand against racism – especially when it is in their own ranks.
For months, Tory MPs and ministers have – rightly – challenged Corbyn on Labour’s anti-Semitism problem. There are comparisons – and differences – between the scale and nature of the problem facing both parties.
Anti-Semitism is rife across all parts of the Labour party, from the bottom to the very top. The Labour leader himself has been caught on video making some comments which are, at the most generous explanation, borderline anti-Semitic – about “Zionists” not understanding “English irony”.
He has been photographed at a wreath-laying ceremony for Palestinian terrorists, and has endorsed on Facebook an anti-Semitic mural. More recently, it emerged that members of his office have intervened in the investigation of anti-Semitic cases in the party, despite assurances to the contrary.
Last month, a high profile Jewish MP, Luciana Berger, was forced out of the Labour party largely because of anti-Semitism. It is true that the MP Chris Williamson was suspended from the party last month for saying it had been too apologetic about anti-Semitism, but only after the leadership had dragged its feet for months over Williamson’s previous form. Labour’s problem with anti-Jewish hatred thrives because it has oxygen at the very top of the party.
Do the Conservatives have the same problem with Islamophobia, on such a scale, and at such high ranks? Theresa May has not been caught in similar situations to Corbyn, and the number of publicised cases is, so far, lower than those for Labour. However, Boris Johnson, one of the most high-profile Conservative MPs, is now back in the running as a Tory leadership candidate despite his comments about Muslim women last summer.
The ex-foreign secretary referred to women who wear burkas as looking like “letterboxes” and compared them to “bank robbers”. Despite revulsion from his senior colleagues, and a plea by the prime minister for him to apologise because he had “clearly caused offence”, Johnson refused to say sorry. In fact, earlier this year Johnson doubled down by saying he would repeat the comments all over again.
And yet saying burka-wearing women look like “letterboxes” is the sort of vile, dehumanising fare thrown around in the comments on dodgy far right Facebook groups.
In recent days, it emerged that 14 Tory members have been suspended from the party for posting Islamophobic comments on social media.
Last year the Tory councillor Mick Murphy was suspended for sharing an Islamophobic meme on Facebook which compared Muslim children to bin bags, as well as another image with a Britain First watermark. However, last week it emerged Murphy has been reinstated after serving a period of suspension.
Emails leaked to BuzzFeed revealed that the Tory chairman, Brandon Lewis, has sat on complaints of Islamophobia for months and two local Conservative chairmen have resigned in protest at his failure to act over separate allegations of abuse.
On a day of gaffes last week, three cabinet ministers offended different minorities – including Amber Rudd’s “coloured” remark, Karen Bradley’s comments about killing of Irish people by British soldiers and Andrea Leadsom suggesting a Foreign Office minister could respond to concerns about Islamophobia against British Muslims. All three incidents were a sign that the party is hopelessly tone deaf on diversity.
As Labour’s anti-Semitism row refuses to die down, with fresh incidents emerging all the time, the Conservatives’ anti-Muslim problem still bubbles under the surface. The Tories cannot claim any high ground over Labour while they ignore the hatred on their own patch. And yet they are falling into the same trap that Corbyn and senior Labour figures have talked themselves into for more than three years – minimising the scale of abuse and drawing equivalence with other issues.
In response, the prime minister and party chairman should listen to one of their most high-profile Muslim figures in the party – Baroness Warsi. She has called for an inquiry into the issue of Islamophobia by Conservatives, yet so far her demands have fallen on deaf ears.
It is extraordinary that a politician who achieved a ‘first’ by getting to the cabinet is now seen by the Tory leadership of unworthy of being listened to. This careless dismissal of a community’s representative at a senior level in the party has echoes of the way concerns of anti-Semitism by Labour MPs Ruth Smeeth, Margaret Hodge, Louise Ellman and Berger were ignored for months. The Tories’ eagerness to point to Labour’s anti-Semitism problem merely reflects their own failure to listen.
With May’s position as prime minister looking increasingly precarious, there could be a Tory leadership election within weeks – even days – and Johnson is a likely candidate. There is a strong possibility he could win. If he is unrepentant about his “letterbox” remarks, what would this mean for a Johnson premiership? What’s more, what would it say about the wider Conservative Party and where it sees itself in 2019? It would be a long way from the modernising pledges of Cameron in 2005.