The Tories might well look at Labour’s current travails over anti-Semitism and sigh with relief. “At least we’re not as bad as that.” They would be wise not to be so complacent.
Anti-Semitism is not confined to Corbyn’s Labour or to the Left in general. The attacks on Soros by some Tory-leaning papers, even Mrs May’s “citizens of nowhere” speech, echoed some pretty standard tropes about rootless disloyal cosmopolitan people somehow undermining good old native British culture. And there have been enough people within the Tories willing to use and spread offensive and hateful imagery and statements about Muslims, Jews and foreigners in general to show that they are not immune.
Baroness Warsi can be criticised for some of the views she has expressed (about Prevent, about Sara Khan and the Commission for Countering Extremism) but her complaints about how some in the Tory party view Muslims raise worrying questions, questions which need addressing seriously.
The most important lesson to learn from Labour’s problems is that the sooner you stamp down hard on problems, the easier it is to root them out. Early effective action makes it easier to create the right culture – a culture which is unwelcoming to those who wish to discriminate against “others” and who spread or use hateful words, imagery, insults, whether this is because they believe them or because they think them useful in some greater cause.
There are three more important lessons to be learned:-
- It is not enough to make speeches about clamping down on such abuse. This must be accompanied by actions, at all levels of the party from the top down, and not just when the press is looking but on a sustained basis. Those who care about such matters will notice if action is taken just for show.
- Establish the scale of the problem. Properly. Organisations hate doing this – it’s washing your dirty linen in public, it can be demoralising for those who don’t behave badly, it feels as if you’re giving ammunition to your opponents. But unless you know the extent of the problems you face, you cannot seriously put in place the measures needed. What’s more, it looks as if you’re trying to cover things up. So when you do try and deal with an issue, you run the risk of not being believed. Better to be open when the issues are small and resolvable than be forced into an inquiry under pressure when your credit is already low. And better this than be investigated by outside bodies, when you have lost control. The Tories would be wise to take advice – and be seen to be doing so – from the Equalities Commission on best practice.
- Have a robust, thorough, independent investigative and disciplinary process, staffed by people who know what they are doing and who understand how to spot and avoid an actual or potential conflict of interest. This is not that hard, if the will is there. Not doing so or just doing the bare minimum will cause endless grief; the damage to reputation will hugely outweigh the costs and be very long-lasting. It is the falsest of false economies.
This may not be something that matters to many voters, but it is emblematic of a party’s moral compass, of how it is perceived. Voters’ decisions are made as much for emotional reasons as following a cool rational assessment of parties’ policies. Labour has suffered in part because the allegations of anti-Semitism by its own MPs are at odds with its image of itself as an anti-racist party. It makes it seem – to some, anyway – nasty. It took the Tories a very long time indeed to shed their “nasty party” tag but it will not take long for them to reacquire it. (Some will argue that this has already happened.)
But why should the Tories be bothered by this? There have been no demonstrations outside Parliament or polls showing significant percentages of Muslims wanting to leave or complaints that the Tories are posing an existential threat to Muslim life in this country. Nor has Mrs May invited Tommy Robinson to tea, described him as a friend, gone on foreign trips with members of the Klu Klux Klan. Indeed not. But that is to set the bar very low indeed.
And what about the distinction between not insulting Muslims and criticising Islam? Questioning, criticising, challenging an idea, even a religious idea, is essential in a free society, no matter how uncomfortable that may make its adherents feel. All true – and there are certainly many aspects of Islam, of how a community with a fundamentally credal culture integrates into a secular one, of the realities of how some Muslim or Muslim heritage groups behave – which warrant vigorous criticism and debate.
But that criticism can all too easily be dismissed if it comes from a party which permits vulgar hateful abuse against individual Muslims and seeks, implausibly, to justify this by claiming it as merely criticism of a religion. That too is a lesson to be learned from Labour (which has sought to justify abuse of Jews by claiming that this was just criticism of a foreign country or its government). Such Jesuitical distinctions just compound the offence and the insincerity of the explanation.
So why are the Tories vulnerable to a charge of hatred of or contempt for Muslims (and other minorities)? Three possibilities:-
- The legacy of the Leave campaign, the way May’s government seemed to divide the nation into patriots and outsiders, the Go Home vans, the Windrush debacle make it far too easy for some to think it acceptable to indulge in “othering”of those who look or are different. Even Johnson (in favour of permitting the burqa to be worn) could not resist using childish and bullying language when making his arguments, arguments which might have been listened to with more care had he reined back his insatiable desire for a headline. Depending on how Brexit is – or is not – implemented, it is easy to see how a “stab in the back” complaint against “saboteurs” allegedly owing their loyalty to others could morph into something much more sinister aimed at minorities.
- UKIP may now be a busted flush headed by a leader determined to outdo one of his leadership rivals in anti-Muslim bigotry. But for a party once described by Cameron as full of “fruitcakes, racists and loonies”, it has been remarkably successful at changing Tory policy. Tory membership is low; the Tories are divided, exhausted, effectively leaderless and no longer really know what they are for. These are the conditions which make it vulnerable to determined entryists. It would not take many of them mouthing off about loyalty tests and the rest to create the impression that Tories hate Muslims. Even a Muslim Home Secretary born into a poor family is not sufficient inoculation against the harm that entryists can do.
- It is a fair assumption that many Leave voters cared more about non-EU immigration than EU migration. (Why would the Turkey and “Breaking Point” posters have been used had this not been the case?). The irony of the Brexit vote is that it is precisely this sort of immigration which has now increased to its highest level for years. Easy to see how this can create the perfect environment for a backlash against such migrants, many of whom will likely be Muslim.
Dislike of minorities does not need to be a given. Indeed, it should be something which no decent country or party should indulge in. But its absence cannot be taken for granted. It is not always parties’ better angels which rule. The Tories should take no comfort from the beams in Labour’s eyes. They should concentrate on removing the motes from their own.