Conservative Islamophobia and the EHRC
Is a reasonable discussion about the Equality and Human Rights Commission and racism in political parties even possible? Honestly, it seems doubtful. The EHRC has been weaponised in the endless battle of ‘your racism is worse than ours’ between the Conservative government, the Labour opposition and their respective supporters. That the commission has investigated Labour for antisemitism but will not investigate the Conservatives for anti-Muslim hate has been used to undermine the antisemitism probe, painting it as part of a smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. This is not merely bleak in its own terms. It also makes it harder to raise the question of Conservative Islamophobia and what can be done to tackle it.
It’s no secret that the EHRC is operating with restrictions. An independent body reliant on government funding, its budget was hacked by the Conservatives and is now around £17 million – down from £70 million when it was set up in 2007 by New Labour. With that, it is supposed to ‘enforce equality legislation on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation’. It has a huge job with limited resources and the government of the day sitting on its back, aware that hard-right Conservatives would be happy to give it the chop.
There’s no need to fuel conspiracy theories about Jewish power or conjure EHRC agendas against the left to examine the way different prejudices play out in our political conversation. The equalities commission has a high bar for opening an inquiry into a party, not least to justify spending public money. That bar was cleared with Labour and antisemitism: the submission from the Jewish Labour Movement included many examples, more than a hundred evidence statements and sworn testimony from seventy whistleblowers.
Why did the dossier on Conservative Islamophobia not clear the same bar? The Muslim Council of Britain’s submission gives detailed examples of Conservative MPs, councillors and members making eye-wateringly hateful comments and not facing disciplinary action for it. The party leader made vile comments about ‘the burka’ (he meant niqab) which led to a surge in anti-Muslim attacks. There is evidence of denialism at the highest levels of the party. Both the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum and his successor as chairman were hounded for raising concerns. According to a Hope Not Hate/YouGov survey last year, 60 per cent of Conservative party members think ‘Islam is generally a threat to Western civilisation’ while 54 per cent consider it a threat to ‘the British way of life’. In short, the MCB submission shows both the scale of the problem and failures to recognise or deal with it. Still, the EHRC concluded in May that, since the Conservatives had agreed to set up an independent inquiry, ‘it would not be proportionate to initiate our own investigation at this stage.’
The first problem here is the inquiry’s terms of reference, limited only to the Conservatives’ complaints process, which skirts the wider issue of an environment of hostility to Muslims. Next, while the EHRC may indeed need to allow the avenue of an internal inquiry to be exhausted before it opens its own investigation, the upshot is that the Conservatives are being rewarded for ignoring the issue until forced to confront it.
But there are deeper issues here, too. Complaints of Conservative Islamophobia did not and could not show up in the same way as was the case with Labour antisemitism. Where are the dozens of whistle-blowers revealing Conservative failures in sworn testimony? Where are the leaks detailing faults in the handling of discrimination complaints? Where are the Muslim Conservatives MPs and members who have raised the issue and been backed by allies in the party? Conservative members are not only fewer in number than Labour members, but older and less likely to post online (the scale of the problem may be even worse than a trawl through Tory social media would suggest). The Jewish Labour Movement has a 100-year history in the party; the Muslim Council of Britain is 23 years old and has been eyed with suspicion by successive governments, including New Labour.
On top of all that, hatred against Muslims has, as the Conservative peer and former chair of the party Sayeeda Warsi memorably said in 2011, ‘passed the dinner-table test’ of social acceptability. It is a constant feature of right-wing newspapers, with commentators not only launching regular tirades against Muslims, but proclaiming Islamophobia to be a fiction. You don’t need to factor in media opposition to Corbyn to see why Conservative Islamophobia hasn’t generated a level of media attention commensurate with the scale of the problem.
An equalities commission ought to understand these dynamics and calibrate its assessments accordingly. It doesn’t help that the EHRC does not have any Black or Muslim commissioners (that may change, as a new chair and up to four new board members are in the process of being appointed). Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, then the sole Muslim commissioner, and Lord Simon Woolley, then the only Black commissioner, said recently that they lost their roles in 2012 because they were ‘too loud and vocal’ about race issues. All told, it’s a poor situation for a body set up to tackle racial injustice. By encouraging a perception that it handles different prejudices unequally, the commission is adding to toxic divisions between minorities at a time when collectivism, in the face of rising racism, is more necessary than ever.