At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester 18 months ago, I was invited to chair a fringe meeting aimed at boosting Muslim participation in British politics. Sufyan Ismail, a successful businessman, made an eloquent presentation. He made the case that Muslims are naturally Conservative: hard-working, family-minded people who want to stand on their own feet.
Ismail noted, however, that few Muslims vote Conservative. He said that this was a legacy of the arguments about immigration in the post-war era. That was now ancient history, he insisted, meaning that Muslims are an obvious Tory target.
Conservative Party chairman Grant Schapps had promised that a Conservative MP would speak at this event, but none turned up. The organisers felt snubbed and disappointed.
Later that night I spotted Grant Schapps across the room at the large conference party thrown by the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper for which I then wrote. I strolled across and upbraided him severely. Why had he broken his promise?
To his credit, the Conservative chairman did not try to deny that he had promised a Tory MP would be present. But he said that there was a security issue. I replied that his insinuation that the Muslims at the meeting posed a threat to life and limb was outrageous. In any case everybody present had been obliged to undergo careful police checks in advance, in addition to being screened and frisked.
He then changed tack and blamed administrative error. I pointed out that other organisations had not fallen victim to comparable mix-ups, citing that week’s event thrown by the Conservative Friends of Israel, which had been attended by several cabinet ministers and numerous MPs.
As we parted I told the Conservative chairman that I was not convinced. Regrettably, this year’s general election campaign proves that I was right to be sceptical. It is now clear that the governing Conservative Party has deliberately turned its back on British Muslims.
The prime minister and his wife Samantha Cameron have gone out of their way to woo every other numerically significant religious or ethnic minority. David and Samantha Cameron visited a Sikh temple in Gravesend two weeks ago. David Cameron wooed Indian voters with a special Hindi campaigning song. This week’s Jewish Chronicle contains a long interview with the prime minister, in which he strongly defended Benjamin Netanyahu’s invasion of Gaza last summer.
By contrast there has been no serious attempt to reach out to Muslims. Baroness Warsi, who resigned from the government in protest against David Cameron’s failure to condemn Gaza and is potentially a potent asset, is confined to the north and has been deployed on just a handful of seats.
There have been no prime ministerial visits to mosques during the campaign (Indeed I can discover no evidence that George Osborne, who doubles as Chancellor and Tory campaign chief, has ever visited a mosque).
In so far as attention has been paid to Muslims, it has been negative. Islam is portrayed as a problem. Home Secretary Theresa May made a major intervention on the eve of the election which attacked the "hatred, bigotry and ignorance" of Muslim "extremists". This speech, delivered on 23 March, pledged that an incoming Conservative government would extend banning orders and investigate Sharia courts.
I believe that it was reckless and irresponsible of the Home Secretary to raise security issues on the eve of an election campaign. (I am afraid that May is incorrigible. She was at it again on Thursday, warning that a hung parliament would put Britain at risk of a terror attack). These are important national matters should be discussed carefully and thoughtfully. They should never be used as a partisan political weapon.
Out of fairness I record that those close to May insist that the timing of her speech on 23 March was completely unrelated to any political timetable. To be even fairer to May, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper is every bit as prone to politicise terror.
May’s speech did, furthermore, contain one noteworthy sop to Muslim opinion. She promised that “we will require police forces to record anti-Muslim crimes as well as anti-Semitic crimes.”
Curiously this sentence no longer appears on the Home Office page where the speech is displayed. Nor is there any mention of recording hate crimes against Muslims in the Tory manifesto. The most the party commits to is a “review of hate crime legislation”, with no special mention of Islamophobia. Has May’s promise been surreptitiously dropped after internal protests from Tory Islamophobes? A senior party source close to May assures me this is not the case, and that her 23 March pledge stands.
In naked electoral terms, however, the neglect of the Muslim vote makes no sense. Ignoring the Muslim vote means that the Tories are significantly more likely to return to opposition. This week the Henry Jackson Society, sometimes categorised as a neo-Conservative pressure group, published a powerful piece of research showing that the British Muslims vote could prove decisive in up to a quarter of constituencies in the 2015 general election.
Crucially the Muslim vote carries special weight in marginal seats, adds the Henry Jackson Society. Its research intriguingly echoes findings carried out by the lobby group Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). When I spoke to MEND earlier this week, it told me that both the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party (and the Scottish National Party) had listened very carefully to its arguments.
They said, by contrast, that the Conservatives had been "unresponsive".
MEND, back in the days when it was known as Engage, hosted the Conservative conference event cold-shouldered by Grant Schapps. I think I can assert without fear of contradiction that MEND and the Henry Jackson Society very rarely agree about anything. We should take all the more notice on the occasions when they do.
The implication of the research from MEND and the Henry Jackson Society is dramatic: if David Cameron’s Conservative Party fails to win a majority on election day next Thursday, this will in part be down to the refusal to take Muslims voters seriously.
Yet the Conservative Party has not even tried to win the votes of Britain’s approximately 2.7 million Muslims. Sayeeda Warsi acknowledged as much late last year when she told the BBC that the Tory leadership "realise a whole series of decisions have made it incredibly difficult" for party candidates to "justify their position" in Muslim communities.
Baroness Warsi highlighted David Cameron’s failure to condemn Israeli actions in Gaza, which left nearly 2,200 people, the great majority of them Palestinians, dead. However there are other issues which concern Muslims, of which clumsily implemented counter-terrorism policies are the most obvious.
The Conservative decision to ignore the Muslim vote has implications which stretch far beyond private Tory grief. It is very troubling that one of our two great political parties should systematically turn its back on any section of British society.
In this year’s general election the Conservatives have developed a model of political engagement which has nothing to offer many Muslims who want to get involved in mainstream politics. This does not only damage, it discredits the Conservative cause.
- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as Chief Political Columnist of the Daily Telegraph. 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: British Prime Minister David Cameron visits the Jamia Mosque in Manchester ahead of Eid, 7 August 2013 (Gov.uk)