At the Conservative party conference in 2012, I was having breakfast alone, when a Tory backer from Oxfordshire joined me. He reads this column though it often makes him spitting mad. Even so, I found him genial and open-minded for a landed gent from the shires. He asked: “Yasmin, do you reject this party because you’re a woman, ethnic minority, or a Muslim?” My vote, for him, was inextricably bonded to identity not to political belief. So 20th century. But at least he was genuinely interested. Most of his other tribe members still behave as if the world belongs, by divine right, to pompous, backward, white men.
This week, David Cameron was taunted by Labour during Prime Minister’s Questions for having no women that day on his front bench. It wasn’t edifying; it didn’t reflect the population, it was in-your-face confirmation that Cameron had lost the fight and urge to modernise his party. Remember his panache and promises when he became leader before the last election? In 2009, a whole lot of “Cameron’s Cuties” were paraded, hopefuls, some thoroughly modern Ms’s with cheeky first names like Chloe, Debi, Flick and Mimi.
Some of the cohort did become candidates and MPs in spite of hideous local henchmen. The brightest were even promoted to ministerial jobs, but few now remain in post. Chloe Smith became Economic Secretary to the Treasury in 2011 and resigned two years later, after a poor performance on BBC’s Newsnight and a few bad, political decisions. She was young and smart and should have been better nurtured. But Tories, as we know, don’t get “nurture”. The killer gets all.
Since the fall of Smith, four female MPs from this reactionary party have decided not to stand again. There has been a cull or exclusion of females from the highest diplomatic posts, from cabinet committees and quangos. Only 17 out of 114 appointments to the Privy Council have been female. Most shocking of all is that the dumped and sidelined women Tories act like the wives of faithless Tory husbands – still loyal, accepting their lot.
Little wonder then, that polls show a significant fall in the female vote for Tories. But the party is even worse on race equality and opportunity. Cameron does at least have four female cabinet ministers – Theresa May (Home Office), Maria Miller (Culture, Media, Sport and Women), Justine Greening (International Development) and Theresa Villiers (Northern Ireland). But look at his bleached front men. No black or Asian faces there to add colour. The Lib Dems are bad on female representation too, but even more appallingly, are all white at every level. Labour is better on both, but still not reflective of our society. Black and Asian citizens are courted for funds and votes by all parties, but utterly disrespected and disregarded in the political process and institutions of power and governance. They must think we are mugs.
But cut back to the Tories, who are at the centre of this particular storm at present. The Economist, Conservative Home, Lord Ashcroft and Tory strategists are trying to understand why “ethnic minorities” still don’t support the party of aspiration and low taxes. Some think the reasons are either “cultural aversion” or historical suspicion. I see the cultural aversion coming from the Tories. They don’t like us, hound migrants, have an alienating vision of Britishness, have abandoned the principles of racial equality and fairness, still hold on to a colonial mentality and seem anachronistic. Admittedly, some of their most ardent supporters are Black or Asian – Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Sean Bailey a black activist made good, the bullish economics commentator Sajid Javid, Adam Afriye and so on. Privately, many of them say they had hoped for a more progressive Tory party. It was yet another broken pledge.
Diversity of late has been almost wholly about gender parity, not about race or class, or indeed disability. The other exclusions are now excluded from the national discourse. I am with Ed Miliband when he slams the macho Tory party. But race and class matter as much. What stopped him including those? Was he scared of upsetting racists and benefit haters?
Even if we get a perfectly gender-balanced front bench, that will still not reflect the nation nor affirm our democratic status. So, to finally answer the Tory man I met for breakfast: I can’t vote for your party because it is sexist, bigoted, undemocratic and class-ridden. The answer may make him choke on his toast. But there it is.