There were some admirable passages in Theresa May’s speech
yesterday which have been eclipsed by the public relations disaster surrounding its delivery. Between coughs and splutters, the prime minister spoke of Britain as a "home of tolerance" and a "beacon of freedom and democracy". These fine sentiments were not, however, borne out by events at the conference itself.
The Conservative Party has treated Muslims with contempt in wider politics
On Monday morning, I spoke at the Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) fringe event in Manchester. MEND is a not-for-profit company that, in its words, "seeks to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics".
MEND tells me that they were initially told that they would be welcome to hold a meeting in the conference area. However, this guidance changed, and they were forced to hold their event in a building outside the security zone. Meanwhile, the Tory MP due to speak at the event, Crispin Blunt, mysteriously pulled out.
A Conservative failure
No such obstacles were put in the way of MEND at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, where shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and other Labour MPs were on the panel of its meeting.
The Manchester event was nevertheless a lively one, marked by an excellent speech by Nazir Afzal – the former chief crown prosecutor for North West England and now a member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) complaints committee – who said that the government must engage with organisations such as MEND rather than with "community leaders who don’t lead anybody".
Meanwhile, Shazad Amin, the new chief executive of MEND, made a powerful speech about how the Conservative Party should naturally appeal to the Muslim vote. He pointed out that Muslims have conservative values: they are family-minded, hardworking and entrepreneurial.
He cited the shocking statistic that 85 percent of Muslims voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour at the last election, with just 11 percent supporting the Conservative Party. (Incidentally, this is even worse than Labour’s problem with the Jewish community, 13 percent of which said that it would vote for Jeremy Corbyn in June.)
The mayor of London Sadiq Khan delivers a speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Britain, September 25 2017 (Reuters)
He provided cogent analysis showing that the Conservative failure to appeal to Muslims cost it a large number of key marginal seats - such as in Bedford, Keighley and Peterborough. Each of these previously Conservative seats contains between 5,000 and 10,000 Muslim voters. In June, Labour won each of them by fewer than 800 votes.
In spite of this, the goodwill towards the Conservative Party at the event was palpable, which makes it all the more surprising that MEND should have been excluded from the conference itself. Most disturbingly, this is part of a pattern of behaviour by the Conservative Party. Last year, TellMAMA
, a respected organisation which monitors Islamophobia, was denied entry to conference. TellMAMA told me that they were harassed by security guards, who followed them around, stared at them threateningly and insulted one of their staff.
A Muslim-free zone
Two years ago, I was travelling to Tory conference in Manchester to speak at an event about Muslim charities hosted by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) when I received a distressed call from one of the organisers. The Conservative Party had cancelled the event following an article by the journalist Andrew Gilligan in the Sunday Telegraph in which he claimed that one of the charities at the event, Human Appeal, had links with terrorism.
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I looked carefully at the Gilligan article the following day, and it was full of inaccuracies, as I explained in an article for Middle East Eye
at the time. The Tory Party had reacted to the Gilligan article without even contacting ACEVO or Human Appeal.
Two years before that, the Conservative Party had promised MEND that an MP would speak at their meeting. I remember the event vividly because I was there. No Tory MP could be bothered to turn up.
Muslim organisations have therefore been repeatedly snubbed at Conservative conference. And nor is that all. The Conservative Party has treated Muslims with contempt in wider politics. One only need mention Zac Goldsmith’s now infamous 2016 London mayoral campaign, in which the Tories attempted to paint Sadiq Khan as an extremist. Most notoriously, David Cameron stood up in Parliament and condemned Khan for sharing a platform with Suliman Gani, a south London imam whom he told MPs "supports Islamic State (IS)".
The accusation about Gani was completely false. The prime minister was later forced to apologise.
Or one can point to the fact that only four Conservative MPs are Muslim. And none of these three is a voice for Muslims. Sajid Javid does not practice his faith, Nusrat Ghani’s record on the Home Affairs Select Committee suggests that she is estranged from Muslim concerns. Rehman Chishti is a third, and as far as I can see the only reference Nadhim Zahawi has made to his faith was when he was implicated in Donald Trump’s travel ban earlier this year.
The Conservative Party is gradually becoming a Muslim-free zone. For the last two years I have been sitting as a commissioner on the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation & Public Life. One of our core findings has been the broken relationship between British Muslims and British public life. This is yet another example.
- Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also 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.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: The wording on a slogan is changed after letters fell away from the backdrop immediately after Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May concluded her address to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 4 October (Reuters)