• Monday, June 05, 2023


Tories react to Singh review on party’s ‘Muslim problem’

(Photo by Matt Dunham-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

By: Lauren Codling

THE Conservative government needs to prioritise engagement with ethnic minority communities, a former MP has said, following a report which found anti-Muslim sentiment “remains a problem” in the Tory party.

An independent inquiry, led by Professor Swaran Singh, found a “widespread perception” that the Tories have a “Muslim problem”. The issue was not systemic or institutional, and there was no evidence that the party treated complaints about Islamophobia any differently from other discrimination, the report said.

Its findings follow numerous accusations of Islamophobia against the Tory party in recent years, including prime minister Boris Johnson’s comments comparing Muslim women in veils to letterboxes in 2018.

Johnson issued a qualified apology for offence caused by his past remarks in the report, which was released last week.

‘Stronger engagement needed’

Paul Uppal, the former Conservative representative for Wolverhampton Southwest, a seat previously held by Enoch Powell, has called for stronger engagement with ethnic minority voters. He believes the party’s engagement with diverse groups has lessened since he was defeated in 2015.

However, after the party gained seats in the 2019 general election, Uppal did not believe engagement with the ethnic minority population was a priority for the Tories.

“I think in a post-Brexit environment, the success of the Conservative party has not had to focus so much on coveting the BAME vote,” Uppal told Eastern Eye. “Since I’ve not been there, I think (BAME engagement has) dropped off the radar a little bit.”

Conservative peer Lord Dolar Popat argued the party had made “huge strides” in engaging with minority populations in recent years. The British Indian vote for the Tories has gone up from 11 per cent in 2005 to 49 per cent in 2019, the peer noted.

Describing the Conservative party as a “diverse organisation”, Lord Popat pointed to the make-up of the cabinet, with the two most powerful offices of state being held by British Indians – Rishi Sunak (chancellor) and Priti Patel (home secretary). Sajid Javid became the first British Asian to serve as home secretary and chancellor in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

“We also have Alok Sharma (business secretary) and Suella Braverman (attorney general for England and Wales), making it the most diverse cabinet in history,” Lord Popat said, adding: “Our party has always been one of firsts, having trailblazers such as Benjamin Disraeli as the first Jewish prime minister and Margaret Thatcher – the daughter of a shop keeper – as Britain’s first female prime minister.”

Natasha Asghar, a Welsh Conservative politician who represents South Wales East, agreed Westminster was “perhaps one of the most diverse parliaments in the world”.

“In the past two elections, we have seen an increase in people of colour, women, people from all backgrounds and sexual orientation make their way into the Commons and it’s wonderful to see,” she told Eastern Eye. “I would certainly like to see more positive diversity like this in the Welsh Senedd and Scottish parliament too.”

However, Uppal noted the lack of Sikh presence in government. At the time of his election in 2010, he was the first sitting Sikh Tory MP. There has not been another since.

In contrast, he believes the Labour party have made moves to engage with Sikh communities. Uppal recalled a parliamentary debate in which Labour’s former deputy leader Tom Watson admitted the problem needed to be addressed. Labour has two Sikh MPs – Preet Kaur Gill (Birmingham Edgbaston) and Tan Dhesi (Slough).

“The contrast is that the Conservatives haven’t really pushed that agenda, whereas Labour aggressively have,” Uppal said.

‘Do not brush racism under the carpet’

Lord Popat, Uppal and Asghar said they had never experienced racism during their time in the party.

“Everyone from the top down has always expressed a great desire in seeing me win. I don’t think anyone I have met is racially biased in the Conservatives,” Asghar said.

However, she acknowledged that racism in political parties did exist. Her late father Mohammad Asghar (who also represented South Wales East until his death in 2020) faced racism during his tenure in politics.

Asghar stressed it was at the hands of other political parties, not the Tories.

One of the “most racist, political incidents you can possibly imagine took place and was beautifully brushed under the carpet and never spoken of”, she said. The incident was not investigated, but she claimed her father was “hounded” for a decade. He was relentlessly trolled, bullied and harassed, Asghar said.

“Numerous reasons were used for the basis of his defection, but a horrific racist incident (alongside many others small incidents) was the central reason behind it. For me personally, it was soul destroying to see how such a horrible racially motivated incident took place and the victim was treated like the perpetrator,” she said.

She urged every political party to deal with any issues which arise. “Do not brush it under the carpet and portray the victim as the perpetrator,” Asghar said. “When an incident happens, the entire party should be aware, so it does not happen again, and treat the matter seriously. There needs to be clear consequences for discrimination.”

‘Zero-tolerance approach to discrimination’

Elsewhere in the report, Singh found the party had not been active enough in challenging discrimination, its complaints procedure needed to be overhauled and its sanctions system for those who breached the rules was unclear.

Lord Popat acknowledged the recommendations. “We will be actioning in accordance with the recommendations made,” he said. “The Conservative party is committed to calling out discrimination of any kind, hence why the party immediately accepted the recommendations.

“Diversity is at the heart of the party’s agenda and these recommendations will
help to strengthen this.”

Meanwhile, some Muslim groups have expressed disappointment with Singh’s findings. Both the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Engagement and Development have called on the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to use its statutory powers in order to carry out an investigation into the issues raised.

Baroness Sayeed Warsi, the former Conservative chairperson and cabinet minister
who has been vocal about Islamophobia within her party, said it was “obvious” there was a racism issue. She has backed the call for EHRC involvement.

Former chancellor Sajid Javid has also urged the party to implement the recommendations of the report “without delay”. He stated that anti-Muslim sentiment was “unquestionably a problem”.

Amanda Milling, who co-chairs the Tory party, has pledged to implement the recommendations, starting with an action plan to be published within the next six weeks. “The Conservative party will continue to take a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination of any kind and take immediate action to improve our handling of complaints,” Milling said in a statement.

Eastern Eye

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