Francis Maude in Emel magazine

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Francis Maude, chairman of the Conservative Party, has a column in the latest edition of emel magazine (June 2006, issue 21, not online yet but available in Borders), entitled A Party for All People. The article discusses at length the party’s recent drive to recruit more female and ethnic minority candidates, including Muslims:

When David Cameron stood for election to be Leader of our Party, he talked about the need for us to change. Last December, when our members voted for him, they gave him the mandate to make that change. We are making progress but we still have a lot more to do.

We had some tough questions to answer. We needed to address what was wrong with the Conservative Party. Why was it that we lost three elections in a row? Why did we come in third place with the black and minority ethnic communities at the last election?

One possible reason was that the party “failed to reflect what modern Britain looks like”, despite fielding more ethnic minority candidates than either of the other two parties, with two ethnic candidates (Shailesh Vara and Adam Afriyie) elected. But 90% of the party’s MPs are white men and only 17 are women, a possible reason for which Mr Maude does not discuss: that due to the party’s success mostly being in provincial or affluent parts of the country, people living in these areas tend to be white (though obviously not mostly male). How appropriate is it to pursue a “positive” discrimination policy, parachuting ethnic minority candidates in from elsewhere? Surely if the Conservatives want to attract ethnic votes, they need to appeal to the ethnic communities in their own areas.

He also mentions that Mohammed Sheikh, Chairman of the party’s Ethnic Diversity Council and the Conservative Muslim Forum, will be taking a seat in the House of Lords along with Sandip Verma, who stood at the last election for Wolverhampton SW, and furthermore:

I will be joining [Mohammed Sheikh] at a reception to celebrate Eid Miludin Nabi this month.

Which leads me to wonder when this article was written, because Milad was last month. We are now almost at the end of Rabi al-Thaani, while Milad is traditionally in early Rabi al-Awwal, which this year is early April. Another unsuccessful parliamentary candidate, Sayeeda Warsi (candidate for Dewsbury at the last election) has been “learning every day that the Muslim community and the Conservative Party have so much in common”:

Our focus on family values, our belief in individual and collective responsibility, our commitment to community voluntary and social work, our respect for faith groups, and of course our familiarity with entrepreneurship show how we share many values and understand the needs of the Muslim community. We support the need for Halal meat, the right for Muslim women to wear the hijab and support Muslim faith schools.

All well and good, but before the party can expect significant numbers of Muslim votes, the community needs to feel safe in the party’s hands, which won’t happen until it clears away its cobwebs of bigotry. The appointment of Boris Johnson to a shadow cabinet position after his magazine’s disgraceful coverage of the July bombings last year, with “Eurabian nightmare” on the front cover with a map linking the bombings to riots involving Muslims in mainland Europe and not a single Muslim voice allowed to speak on the issue to balance out his own and Patrick Sookhdeo’s, is a particularly discouraging development.

There are two other things the party must consider when seeking the Muslim vote. One is that the candidates need to be credible and respectable, which means that the candidate is religiously observant, does not drink and remembers where he or she comes from (I don’t mean Pakistan or Bangladesh here; I mean his or her community and constituency). Putting up the guy who runs the licensed Taj Mahal restaurant probably will not do much good as the community may well vote for a white candidate in preference. The second is that they must not lump Muslims with “ethnic minorities”, even if most Muslims actually belong to such minorities. Muslims and Hindus may be seen as “Asians” in the UK, but in India there have been serious conflicts between Muslims and elements in the Hindu population. The two communities have some issues in common, share similar cuisines and have common languages, but also have separate concerns, and the same is true of Muslims and the black community.

It is, of course, true that most Muslims have socially conservative attitudes and that there is a heavy small business contingent in the Muslim community, but neither of these have persuaded many Muslims to vote Conservative in the past; it seems that the party has benefited least from the breakdown of the Labour party’s hold on the community. Part of this may be that the Conservatives were traditionally seen as anti-immigration (the popular Tory press certainly was, and still is), which may well be the cause of the other main problem: the total lack of familiarity between the party and the community. How visible are Muslims in local Conservative party associations, and how much business in those associations is done over pints of beer in smoky rooms? And the party must be consistent: there is no point talking “entrepreneurship” to small shopkeepers when you are traditionally associated with big business, and certainly not in talking “family values” to religious people who are aware of your party’s past links to the sleazy but sanctimonious popular press. While noises from the Conservative benches about civil liberties arouse some interest, it hardly needs to be said that, in the event of the US’s politics continuing along their present course, slavishly following where they lead will not win the party any Muslim votes either.

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