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28 March 2018updated 01 Aug 2021 12:08pm

“A case study in racist signalling”: What the Havering leaflet reveals about the Tories

Conservative dog-whistle tactics in elections are nothing new. But has the party learned its lesson?

By Anoosh Chakelian

As the local election campaigns kicked off last week, a Conservative campaign leaflet was distributed in Havering, an east London borough bordering Essex.

It warned residents that this end of suburbia risked becoming like an “inner-city area”, and a Labour win would result in, “Havering resembling boroughs like Hackney, Newham, Camden and Barking, rather than traditional parts of Essex” – and “our cherished union jack flag being taken down”.

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The rather glaring message between the lines? Race. Or at least according to both Labour and Tory politicians, who accused the local Conservative party last Friday of racially charged “dog-whistle” politics.

“You don’t have to be a genius to realise this leaflet is one long dog whistle about race and the diversity that the vast majority of Londoners are so proud of,” the Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy told the Guardian. And other London Labour MPs including Wes Streeting and Chuka Umunna also condemned the leaflet.

Havering’s Tory MP Andrew Rosindell insisted the leaflet isn’t about race, as it doesn’t mention it – and is actually about high-density housing, but his Conservative colleagues disagreed, and it has been withdrawn today.

The leaflet was produced by the Romford Conservatives local association.

“I don’t like that advert one bit,” tweeted a Conservative Essex councillor Stephen Canning. “Just because you’re on one side, doesn’t mean you can’t call out things it does wrong.”

The Tory peer and pollster Andrew Cooper accused the leaflet of “racist signalling”, commenting: “That is a truly hateful Tory leaflet – a case study in racist signalling. I couldn’t vote for anyone who put their name to that & CCHQ should condemn it.”

Also addressing CCHQ, the Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford and former minister Nick Boles called the leaflet “disgraceful” on Twitter. “The individuals responsible should apologise, and withdraw it, or face disciplinary action,” he wrote. “We cannot attack Corbyn for indulging anti-semitism in Labour and allow messages like this to go unchallenged. [Tory party chairman] @BrandonLewis over to you.”

A Tory spokesperson comments:

“Romford Conservatives intended to highlight local concerns about  housing pressures, high-density urbanisation and badly-run Labour councils in inner London. They have apologised for any offence caused and the leaflet has been withdrawn.”

The leaflets had already been delivered, which is how they made their way onto social media and into the national public eye.

But following the apology and “withdrawal”, the Evening Standard’s political editor Joe Murphy reported that one of the councillors featured on the leaflet said it had been approved by the central party, and he hadn’t been contacted by them about it.

So what’s going on here? I have asked both CCHQ and the Romford Conservatives local association if the leaflet was approved centrally. Neither of them have answered this question.

Why does this matter? It’s a cock-up either way – either CCHQ didn’t get a look at it, but took a while to discipline the local association and didn’t contact them before condemning it, or approved it in the first place.

And either way, it matters, because this debacle shows the party has learned nothing after the former Tory candidate for London mayor Zac Goldsmith’s nasty dog-whistle campaign in 2016.

His literature used similar signalling to that observed in the Havering example, drawing attention to Sadiq Khan’s Muslim and Pakistani background to try and exploit (or invent) racial divisions in certain parts of the capital.

Reporting on the campaign at the time, I discovered its degree of resonance within certain communities was far outweighed by outrage and dismay at the racial overtones and cynical divisiveness of his leaflets.

It also damaged the party’s reputation, with many Tory figures coming outafter the campaign, mind – to condemn its tactics. (The Conservative group leader on the Greater London Assembly Andrew Boff said it had “done real damage” and “blown up bridges” between his party and the Muslim community).

The Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi warned me last year that Theresa May is “writing off British Muslims”, and it seems to be getting worse. The Havering leaflet was swiftly followed by the Tory MP Bob Blackman sharing an Islamophobic post on his Facebook page, entitled “Muslim Somali sex gang say raping white British children ‘part of their culture’ ” (he later took it down, calling it an “error”).

The party may have made calculations in the past that it doesn’t need to court Muslim voters (as Warsi accuses it of doing in her book, The Enemy Within), but this complacency is inexcusable with Islamophobic hate crimes having increased fivefold last June, when there was also a terrorist attack on Finsbury Park mosque in north London.

During the race for the London mayoralty two years ago, no senior Tories spoke out before the result, preferring to side with Goldsmith and attack Khan with similar language. With the Havering leaflet, more Tories – local and national – have been willing to criticise it, but the central party was slow to catch up.

This shows two things: the party’s still not taking its unpopularity among socially liberal, economically aspirational voters seriously, and it’s damaging its reputation among ethnic minority voters, who it once looked towards to form its future base.