Last year there were growing calls for the Conservative Party to tackle the Islamophobia crisis within its ranks. A steady drip-feed of allegations emerged throughout the year of Islamophobic behaviour from individuals at every level of the party, ranging from the grassroots up to the very top with the leadership.
Yet the party has appeared reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the problem, which is the first step towards tackling any issue effectively. It has seemed, at times, as though the party was intent on repeating every mistake that Labour has made in its handling of its antisemitism crisis.
Despite the party’s claims that its disciplinary procedures were ‘transparent’, a consistent refusal to provide basic information about the number of complaints, or their outcomes, has made it impossible for outside observers to verify the actions taken or true scale of the problem. As it stands, the evidence we have already suggests that the problem is larger than the leadership cares to admit.
The election of Boris Johnson as Conservative leader in July last year has understandably given cause for concern, given his track record of making inflammatory comments about Muslims and Islam.
His article for the Telegraph in August 2018, which likened Muslim women who wear the burka to “letterboxes” and “bank-robbers”, was feted by anti-Muslim figures and displayed a callous disregard for the impact his words might have had on a vulnerable minority group.
A number of other offensive articles he’d written over the past two decades also garnered renewed attention, including one in which he proclaimed: “… the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem” (The Spectator, 2005). Provocative and indiscriminate statements such as these hardly inspire confidence that Mr Johnson is committed to tackling anti-Muslim sentiment in his party.
A number of the party’s candidates in December’s General Election were revealed to have made Islamophobic comments on social media, too. There have also been a deluge of allegations against local councillors.
Dossiers compiled by the Guardian and LBC showed evidence of anti-Muslim and racist posts on social media by more than 30 current and former councillors, including claims that Muslims were “barbarians” and the “enemy within”, as well as promoting Islamophobic conspiracy theories. These included notions such as the existence of supposed “no-go zones” for non-Muslims and the idea that Muslims have been infiltrating public life in order to “take over”.
The Conservative Party claims that it takes immediate and decisive action when such claims emerge, and made an unspecified number of suspensions as a result of these dossiers. Yet the disciplinary processes that follow these suspensions remain opaque, with the party claiming that confidentiality prevents it from providing details of any individual cases.
A Guardian report in March last year showed that 15 councillors who had previously been suspended for racist and Islamophobic behaviour had been quietly readmitted, despite the-then party chairman Brandon Lewis publicly criticising similar behaviour by Labour.
Recently readmitted councillors include Jeff Potts from Solihull, who was suspended for having retweeted a call for all British Muslims to be deported, and David Abbott of Houghton Regis, who was suspended for comments on social media about “the infiltration requirements of Mohammedanism” and suggested that Muslims were “breeding for Islam”. While the Conservative Party insists that both men have apologised and undergone diversity training, it is legitimate to ask whether such actions amount to more than a box-ticking exercise, with eventual readmission as a foregone conclusion.
There were also numerous reports of complaints made to party HQ that had been either ignored or effectively stonewalled, with victims of discrimination feeling forced to resign from the party in protest.
In March 2019, HOPE not hate’s chief executive Nick Lowles wrote to Brandon Lewis to demand an explanation, in light of the fact that Lewis had stated in a tweeted reply to HOPE not hate in November 2018 that there were “no outstanding cases [of Islamophobia complaints]”.
A number of news reports emerged over the course of 2019 that revealed unresolved complaints made prior to this tweet, which you would expect the party Chair to know. One complaint had come from Ajay Jagota, a local Conservative chair in South Shields, who had been subject to anti-Muslim abuse by a Tory councillor. Despite having raised his complaints with Brandon Lewis in person at the party conference in September last year, Jagota eventually resigned his party membership in January, after failing to receive a reply to his numerous follow-up letters.
Polling of Conservative Party members carried out by YouGov on behalf of HOPE not hate in 2018 and 2019 consistently found worryingly high levels of Islamophobic sentiment and false perceptions about Muslims among Tory grassroots members.
Over three-quarters – 67% – of members polled believed that “there are areas of the UK that operate under Sharia Law”, while a staggering 60% said that “Islam is generally a threat to Western civilisation”.
Nearly half – 45% – believed that “there are areas in Britain in which non-Muslims are not able to enter”, and over half – 54% – thought that Islam was also “generally a threat to the British way of life”. Meanwhile, a worryingly high 43% said they would “prefer to not have the country led by a Muslim.
Brandon Lewis rejected the conclusions of the polling, by casting doubt on both the sample size and self- reported status of YouGov’s membership data, despite having approvingly cited previous YouGov polls of Tory members. Rejecting such polling out-of-hand, particularly from such a widely respected pollster, does not seem indicative of a party leadership that is genuinely committed to tackling the issue of anti- Muslim prejudice.
The findings of the polling also appeared to tally with media reports of large numbers of Conservative Party members being reported for making similar anti-Muslim statements on social media. In July, ITV News handed a dossier to Conservative HQ containing abusive anti-Muslim social media posts from over 200 alleged party members. While the party denies that some of the individuals in these dossiers are members, it has consistently refused to provide the actual number of complaints they’ve received – citing confidentiality issues – despite Labour providing regular data on its own complaints statistics.
Much of the anti-Muslim social media activity reported to the party appears to be taking place in Facebook groups that were set up to support either the party itself or specific Tory MPs, appearing in groups such as the ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg: Supporters’ Group’, of which Cllr Abbot (see above) was and remains a moderator.
Such groups are not directly controlled by or endorsed by the Conservative Party or the MPs they support, and Rees-Mogg himself has specifically condemned the anti-Muslim content of the group. Yet the fact that pro-Conservative groups with thousands of members can be home to such large quantities of unchallenged anti-Muslim hatred should be a matter of great concern to the party.
December saw the Conservatives announce the launch of an investigation into the handling of complaints relating to all forms of prejudice, including Islamophobia. While any form of investigation is to be welcomed, the remit of this investigation is both too narrow and too broad to address the scale of the problem they face.
Limiting their investigation only to the handling of complaints, and expanding the remit to include all forms of prejudice, does not demonstrate a willingness to tackle the specific and widespread problem of Islamophobia in the party, and HOPE not hate will continue to demand a full inquiry and decisive action.