Only a handful of MPs with Muslim backgrounds are standing for safe Tory seats in this week's election. But that's hardly surprising: the party gave up on policies that appeal to Muslims long ago
When Britain goes to the polls this Thursday, it won’t just be another general election for two million British citizens. It won’t only be about politics.
Tomorrow’s vote is about identity.
The ruling Conservative party has abandoned and turned its back on Muslim voters.
We assumed that the Conservative Party would conduct an urgent internal inquiry into the use of anti-Muslim bigotry as a tactic in the 2016 election. We were wrong
Consider the company hired to deliver strategic election advice to Theresa May. Just a year ago, Crosby Textor was the strategist behind Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to become mayor of London.
That campaign is today remembered as one of the nastiest of modern times because of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Even Conservatives were appalled. Andrew Boff, former leader of the London Assembly’s Conservative Group, called the attempt to damage Sadiq Khan by linking him to terrorism "outrageous".
He said: “I don’t think it was dog whistle because you can’t hear dog whistle. Everybody could hear this.”
We assumed that the Conservative Party would conduct an urgent internal inquiry into the use of anti-Muslim bigotry as a tactic in the 2016 election.
We were wrong.
Zac is back, Syed is not
There was no investigation, no censure, and less than one year later Crosby Textor has been brought back to devise Tory strategy for 2017.
Just as disturbing, Zac Goldsmith is back too.
Even Zac’s sister Jemima Goldsmith expressed public dismay at Goldsmith’s Muslim-bashing campaign for mayor.
Zac Goldsmith (Flickr/Policy Exchange)
But not Theresa May’s Tory Party, which took advantage of the unusually sudden decision to call an election by imposing official shortlists of approved candidates in safe seats.
One beneficiary was Zac Goldsmith. Despite his 2016 campaign record - and his jaw-dropping disloyalty in resigning the party whip and fighting against the Conservative party as an independent later that year - he was welcomed back and swiftly placed on the official shortlist.
By contrast, we have not been able to identify a single Muslim offered a safe seat- or even placed on a shortlist for a safe parliamentary seat – after the 2017 general election was called.
This was not for lack of strong Muslim candidates.
One Tory insider told us of the sense of bafflement, betrayal and deep dismay that no safe seat was found for Syed Kamall, who has been a highly regarded MEP for the last 12 years.
MEP Syed Kamall meets with Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, in January 2016 (Flickr/European Conservatives and Reformists Group)
Today, Kemall chairs the influential Conservative group in the European parliament. He is one of a handful of Conservative politicians who can ring up European prime ministers and get their calls returned at once.
A man like him ought to have a useful role to play in Brexit negotiations.
This long-term loyalist of proven backbone and authority has been ignored by May, while Zac Goldsmith was swiftly forgiven and handed a safe seat.
We can find only three MPs with Muslim backgrounds – Nusrat Ghani, Sajid Javid and Rehman Chishti – standing for safe Tory seats in 2017. Sajid Javed reportedly does not practice his faith, while Nusrat Ghani’s record on the Home Affairs Select Committee suggests that she is estranged from the concerns of the wider Muslim community. There is also Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Straford-on-Avon, who is reportedly from a Muslim background, but as far as we could see has never made reference to any faith.
It comes as no surprise then to discover that Conservative policies have much less to offer British Muslims than either Liberal Democrats or Labour.
What the parties offer Muslims
Take foreign policy. Both Labour and the LibDems strongly advocate a rules-based international order and an end to unilateral interventions outside the framework of the United Nations. Both promise recognition of a Palestinian state.
Not so the Tories, whose manifesto heads off in the opposite direction with a repudiation of the European Court of Human Rights.
The contrast is especially striking when it comes to civil liberties and security. The Conservatives advocate a poorly defined "Commission for Countering Extremism” and a continuation of the flawed Prevent strategy.
By contrast, the LibDems will scrap Prevent, and Labour pledges a review.
Both the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifesto promise to address Islamophobia head-on. Yet the word Islamophobia is not even to be found in the Conservative manifesto, which contents itself with a pledge to "push forward with our plan for tackling hate crime committed on the basis of religion”.
There is, however, little reason for Muslims to take this particular Conservative pledge seriously.
They have made it before. On the insistence of then cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi in the wake of the 2010 general election, the Tory-led coalition brought together anti-racism groups, academics and Muslim representatives in a working group to look at anti-Muslim hatred.
Reporting to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, it proved a farce. Both the academics on the group, Chris Allen and Matthew Goodwin, resigned in despair after years of inertia. One of them, Matthew Goodwin, explained:
"During a generally unpleasant four years, the basic message appeared to be that the government was simply not that interested in anti-Muslim hatred. In fact, to my knowledge, and despite increased concern over extremism and disillusionment among British Muslims, the government has still not undertaken any research into what causes Islamophobia and what might be done about it. How does the government hope to foster trust and support among communities if it does not appear to take their grievances seriously?"
Playing sectarian politics?
Tory neglect of Muslims under David Cameron and now Theresa May compares with vigorous wooing of other communities.
For example, Tory neglect of anti-Muslim bigotry contrasts with powerfully expressed (and of course justified) concerns about anti-Semitism.
We asked Blackman whether calling himself a 'Chrinjew' was offensive to his Muslim voters, all the more so since there were more Muslims than Jews in his constituency
There is troubling evidence that the Conservative Party is playing sectarian politics. Take Conservative Bob Blackman, who is standing for re-election at the religiously diverse north London constituency of Harrow East.
According to census figures, roughly a third of Harrow East constituents are Christian. Twenty eight percent are Hindu. Seven percent are Jewish. Thirteen percent are Muslim.
Rather than accommodating to all three minorities, Blackman has enthusiastically embraced the Hindi and Jewish minorities while neglecting Muslims.
This approach can easily be traced by study of Blackman’s Twitter traffic. This shows that since the general election was called in April, he has made high profile visits to Neasden, Willesden and Stanmore Temples, as well as Belmont Synagogue. He has not visited a single mosque during his campaign.
A photo of MP Bob Blackman at the Shree Kutch Satsung Swaminarayan Temple shared on 4 June 2017 (Twitter/@aajoshi1986)
According to both Muslim News and the Jewish Chronicle, Blackman describes himself as a “Chrinjew – a Christian with Jewish roots, and an honorary Hindu”.
This nod to religious eclecticism contained no mention of Muslims, even though they make up some 10,000 of Blackman’s constituents.
We asked Blackman whether calling himself a "Chrinjew" was offensive to his Muslim voters, all the more so since there were more Muslims than Jews in his constituency.
He said: "It's absolute rubbish there are more Muslims than Jews in my constituency. The figures are wrong. I don't have that many Muslims. The census assumes every 'Shah' is a Muslim. They aren't. A lot of Shah's are actually Hindus."
We pointed out that census figures are based on how people self-identify, not on surnames. He still maintained – in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary – that there were more Jewish than Muslim voters in Harrow East. For Conservatives like Blackman, Muslims literally don’t exist.
The conclusion is unescapable. The Conservative Party has long given up on policies that appeal to Muslims. The evidence of this now suggests that it may be giving up on Muslims themselves. Is this deliberate? It is hard to be sure.
One thing is certain. The Conservative Party is slowly turning into a Muslim-free zone.
- Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year in 2016 and again in 2017 by the Online Media Awards for an articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
- Alastair Sloan focuses on injustice and oppression in the west, Russia and the Middle East. He contributes regularly to The Guardian, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye. Follow Alastair's work at www.unequalmeasures.com.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Delegates listen as British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a keynote address on the final day of the annual Conservative Party conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, central England, in October 2016 (AFP)