The tories must root out islamophobia to avoid a shock at the polls

This weekend there was yet another incident of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. The Conservative candidate and former MP Karl McCartney was found to have retweeted deeply Islamophobic and racist posts by Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins. In addition, LBC had obtained a dossier showing 10 Tory councillors sharing Islamophobic comments. The Deputy Chair of Stourbridge Conservative Association resigned over Islamophobia claims and 25 Conservative members were suspended.

Baroness Warsi, has a point when she calls for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. We have seen the trouble that can be caused by a failure to confront extremism in the recent Canadian elections. These sorts of incidents could make all the difference on December 12.

I saw first-hand how in Canada, widespread concerns among ethnic minority voters about Conservative Party racism ended the Conservatives’ dream of taking power from Justin Trudeau. And thanks to Trudeau’s “blackface” revelations, similar concerns ate dramatically into the liberal majority.

I know from experience that the traditional values of the centre-right — self-reliance, charity, hard work, family, community, enterprise and a healthy scepticism of the state — often resonate powerfully with minority communities. But as long as the British right continues to be complacent about racism and bigotry, it will — as in Canada — repel minorities.

In Canada, before the election, the Liberal Party held most constituencies where visible minorities made up the majority of the electorate. On election night, the Conservatives failed to make any significant headway into these.

There are clear parallels with the UK. Of the ten most diverse constituencies, eight returned Labour MPs, while only two returned Conservative MPs. If we continue on this path, it is easy to see how Labour might entrench itself in these seats and maintain its in-built advantage by relying on an increasingly diverse electorate.

This is an overlooked reason for why Corbyn did much better than expected in 2017. Ethnic minorities in Leave seats like Peterborough, Keighley, Bedford and Luton were turned off by Theresa May’s jibes about “citizens of nowhere” and the inflammatory go-home vans that were deployed during her time as Home Secretary. Without sustained engagement with ethnic minorities, Boris’s efforts to shift leave-leaning constituencies into the Conservative column could fall flat on its face.

I often hear from centre-right politicians that the reason they lost a constituency or area was because the “demographics changed”. That is a pitiful excuse. The Conservative Party must enfranchise, not alienate, a rapidly changing electorate. That means confronting its perceived racism head-on. Otherwise, it will hand its opponents’ power for the foreseeable future.

There’s a degree of head-in-the-sand denialism about this prospect. Almost certainly, significant numbers of Jewish voters, repelled by Corbyn’s anti-Semitism, will vote Conservative next month; and the Conservatives have also made a significant dent in the British-Indian vote. But this is to benefit from temporary conditions — just because these communities dislike Corbyn does not mean the Conservatives have built a long-term, sustainable coalition. If the Conservatives are not careful, some of these voters will go right back to the Labour Party once Corbyn steps down.

I do not believe the Conservative Party is inherently racist, but its complacency and lack of focus has fostered a perception of institutional bigotry and racism. The Conservative Party needs to show ethnic minority communities that it genuinely cares about them and wants to listen and learn.

That is why the Conservatives should fully commit to an inquiry into Islamophobia — because doing so will prove that the party can adapt to the concerns of minorities and is not afraid of doing what is needed. Of course, there may well be short-term negative headlines. But there will be the huge long-term potential of rooting out bigotry in the party, raising the bar for other political parties, and de-toxifying the party’s image with ethnic minorities. Only then can they begin to heal the divide that currently exists.

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