Talk of Tory Islamophobia has some way to go before it rivals Labour antisemitism but it is getting louder. This week there was a damning report about Facebook posts by self-identified grassroots members of the Conservative Party, some of whom seem bent on preventing Sajid Javid, the UK’s Muslim Home Secretary, becoming their leader.
CCHQ has pledged to take action against any Tory members who indulge in the kind of noxious and explicit religious hatred revealed in the story, but continues to argue that those who it has suspended (or may go on to suspend), investigate and possibly expel constitute a few bad apples.
It may well be right. But is there any measurable evidence of a wider and deeper undercurrent of prejudice against Muslims amongst rank-and-file Conservatives? One way to tell is to look at the responses they give when asked about the kind of MPs they’d like to see in the Commons.
This is exactly what we did when we surveyed the Tory grassroots just after the 2017 election as part of the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.
The exact question ran as follows: “To what extent do you believe that more or fewer MPs in parliament should come from the following backgrounds?” We then listed, for instance, “people who come from the area they represent”, women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people. Also on the list were Muslims.
Respondents could then tell us whether they’d like to see a lot more, slightly more, same as currently, slightly fewer, a lot fewer – or they could say they didn’t know.
We also asked the same of members of other parties, which revealed some very marked differences.
Labour members, for instance, were actually pretty positive: some 62 per cent thought there should be slightly more or a lot more Muslims in the Commons – a figure which can’t really be accounted for, incidentally, by ethnic background since only one in twenty of Labour members identify as anything other than White British.
At the other end of the spectrum were Ukip members, a mere 4 per cent of whom said they’d like to see more Muslim MPs. Now, if you think that the Commons should be a microcosm of British society, then there should be an increase, since Muslims currently make up 5 per cent of the country’s population but just 2.5 per cent of MPs.
This notwithstanding, some 10 per cent of Ukip members said they’d prefer to see slightly fewer Muslim MPs, and 45 per cent wanted a lot fewer.
So what about Tory members? It turns out that they are nowhere near as enthusiastic at the thought of more Muslim MPs as their Labour (or, indeed SNP, Lib Dem, and Green) counterparts. Only 17 per cent picked that option.
On the other hand, nearly half of all Tory members (44 per cent) were satisfied with the status quo, which suggests that getting on for two-thirds (61 per cent) of them can’t really be said to have a serious issue with Islam.
However, that still leaves a quarter (26 per cent) of grassroots Tories who’d prefer to see fewer Muslim MPs – twice as many, incidentally, who said the same (13 per cent) about ethnic minority MPs and (for good measure) six times more than said the same (4 per cent) about female MPs.
That, along with some of the anecdotal and social media evidence that’s emerged recently, suggests that there is there really is a degree of at least low-level Islamophobia at the Tory grassroots.
CCHQ should be careful not to overreact – after all, the party’s rank and file is already up in arms over Brexit; the last thing it needs is to feel that it’s being accused of religious and racial prejudice. But the party’s leadership – and, very importantly, its potential leadership contenders (not just Sajid Javid) – do need to take the issue seriously.
As Labour has vividly shown, denying there’s a problem, and so leaving it to fester, is neither a good look nor a good idea.
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London
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