Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: My journey into the heart of the white middle class

The party conference messages were slick and gratifying – but less so the reality

Monday 12 October 2009 00:00 BST

I give you here my take on the party conferences, views you'll not find elsewhere because columnists of colour (what's more, Muslim and female in my case) are not expected to tread into these spheres of high influence.

Political sketchwriters are cheeky white men who believe they're so damn smart; most print lobby correspondents are also white and largely male, though now some women have joined the club. Come the autumn jamborees these insiders have a ball, or three, smirking, puncturing inflated egos with sharp satire, attacking speeches and policies and making up afterwards with their victims in the bar. Adversaries and new mates cavort, dine together and sometimes breakfast in bed, so I am told.

I have only been going to the fests for five years and still sometimes feel I shouldn't really be there, with the political beasts and the scribes who twin and swim with them perfectly.

The first years were scary. I had to pretend I was undaunted by the sharks of power. It gets easier, and this time I almost felt as if I was among friends as all three parties tried so frightfully hard to bus in a diverse crowd of delegates and highly visible wannabe candidates to prove politics in Britain is now really, really modern and progressive. Like the awesome public celebrations in China, messages and images were slick and gratifying, less so the reality. My one overwhelming impression was that when politicians spoke they had in their minds an essentially white, middle-class audience, people like themselves, in other words.

The Liberal Democrats were in Bournemouth this year and are arguably the least excluding of the three parties – but then they have to be. Many of their policies should draw in all those black and Asian Britons who are done with Labour and can never vote Tory. This party opposed the war in Iraq, has humane policies on asylum, has never pandered to populism on immigration, is naturally European and international, fights valiantly against an intrusive state, opposes punitive anti-terrorism measures, and it has the universally respected economics guru Vince Cable.

I wrote for the party a pamphlet on a differently imagined, more open British nation to draw in all who feel alienated. All good but the glaring truth is that the Lib Dems have only white MPs and is abysmally mono-racial. Does it matter? Of course it does. A number of constituencies will turn on the votes of the so-called "ethnic minorities" but local democracy means selections are still based on familiarity and not difference.

Clegg addressed aspiring black and Asian candidates and is intent, I feel, on transforming his brood. Some of the most talented men and women I have ever met were in that room. If they hear the same balmy words year on year and nothing changes they will jump ship and guess what? The Tories are waiting for them, with flasks of kindness and blankets of welcome. Too little, Mr Clegg and it may soon be too late.

Onwards to Labour then, in Brighton where the sun shone brilliantly but could not burn off the cold fear of potential defeat. As ever the crowds were mixed and voluble but it was only here that I heard MPs and others excusing BNP voters and talking of draconian laws that should shame the Left. A group of Muslims complained to me that young people – students, performers, visitors – from Pakistan are now denied entry indefinitely. I brought this up with MPs at a party and was told to grow up and start taking terrorism seriously. So all Pakistanis are terrorists then? It is not only Anton Du Beke who appears to think so.

With another group of New Labourites I brought up the campaign backed by children's author Jacqueline Wilson to stop the cruel detention of asylum children. Labour of all parties should not be violating their human rights. But like torture and illegal wars, all that is now part of the party's moral lexicon. I expressed my disgust and was screamed at by a young adviser: "What are you playing at? Muslims in Oldham should care about bogus asylum seekers? Do you want us to win or not?" What a question. Do they think I owe them support because of my ethnic make up? That policies don't matter as long as they tolerate and patronise people like me? There were even cretins who tried to persuade me that Tony Blair, a man with blood on his hand, would make a terrific President of Europe.

Oh there were just too many quarrels in Brighton. Mercifully Brown's speech did not mug us with the hammer of Britishness, and I loved the Sarah Brown moment. We Asians are sentimental and husband-as-god will have touched many. "See?" our ladies will have said: "How homely she is, so Indian really."

Finally in Manchester – buzzing, bursting with confidence, just like David Cameron. Oh they think the glittering prize is nearly theirs, though false modesty veiled the conceit rather well. I spoke (and did in Brighton too) at a Total Politics fringe meeting on "Trust", with a very lively, warm and intelligent crowd. Tories are putting on a good show. Rhetoric on immigration is toned down for now.

Last year in Birmingham the conference centre was almost totally white. This year I saw countless black and Asian enthusiasts, some naive, others chasing the coming winners and some true-blue Tories. Streetwise and black, Shaun Bailey was up there with the toffs, this "urban talisman" as Hugh Muir the black journalist describes him. My mood soon darkened. The affluent Mr Osborne sings, "We are in this together" while announcing cuts in public sector spending which will disproportionately affect black and Asian and other low-paid people.

Boris sucked up to the financial bandits who got us into the crisis and Cameron blamed the big state, acquitting by omission greedy fat cats. Hateful is the idea of new schools started up by communities and families. Fanatics, flat-earthers, fundamentalists can thereby brainwash children and rear them apart from others. Shockingly many commentators are now swooning groupies of anything Cameronian. What happened to objectivity?

Other lowlights to report – all three parties were lavishly entertained by the over-influential Friends of Israel, and too many black and Asian attendees behaved like old colonial supplicants. Highlights were fringe debates over Europe, identity and equality where the young of all backgrounds were engaged, visionary global citizens. Oh and someone pinched my bum hard at a Tory bash – hope he got some pleasure. And one Labourite warned me I would never get a peerage. Oh dear, like I have ever asked.

Next year I should go to the Ukip gathering too. On Friday, on BBC Radio 2, Godfrey Bloom, their Yorkshire MEP, told me his Asian contacts didn't mind him calling them "Pakis". This "Paki" can't wait to catch up with him.


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