On Friday afternoon, as the last of the local election results were being counted, Theresa May spoke in the still-Tory north London borough of Barnet. “People of all faiths,” she told the closest thing her party could find to an adoring audience, “have rejected the vile anti-Semitism, which has gone unchallenged in the Labour party for far too long.”
This struck me as a rather ballsy thing to do. While Labour failed to meet the astronomical expectations set before the vote, the Tories had nonetheless just had their worst local election result in the capital since 1971. In Barnet, which is home to a large and historic Jewish community, Labour’s leader in the borough blamed anti-Semitism scandals for not doing better. But far from a rejection of anti-Semitism, the obvious message from the electorate outside Barnet seemed to be that they weren’t particularly bothered about Labour’s inability to stamp on anti-Jewish racism in its ranks.
There’s another reason Theresa May’s speech showed more brass neck than a telescope. Even as she was congratulating her activists on their righteousness, her party was cynically re-instating a newly re-elected councillor who had previously been suspended for sharing a joke comparing people of colour to “stinky” dogs. Put like that, that sounds pretty appalling, doesn’t it? I promise you the actual joke is worse.
Congrats to the Tories for taking control of Pendle council by reinstating Rosemary Carroll. pic.twitter.com/atGP30W9lj
— Kate le Vann (@katelevann) May 4, 2018
It is not obvious to me that a person who would share such a joke would be an asset to the modern Tory party – not just because it makes the party look racist, but also because anyone who thinks you can share such a joke without consequence is clearly too dim to be allowed near the levers of power. That said, on Sky’s Sophy Ridge programme over the weekend, party chair Brandon Lewis tried to claim that the councillor, Rosemary Carroll, had actually meant to delete the post rather than share it, an argument which suggests that a measure of dimness is no barrier to advancement in the modern Conservative party.
At any rate: the party didn’t want Councillor Carroll for her brains or her opinions, merely for her pulse. By giving her back her blue rosette, the party got its majority on Pendle council back. This is fine.
I am, I confess, mystified that anyone at CCHQ thought that this would be a good look at any time, let alone on the exact same day the Prime Minister was trying to position the Tories as the anti-racist choice. Even without getting into the Windrush scandal – in which Theresa May is very obviously implicated, but for which she has been too cowardly to take the slightest responsibility – the party has long had a problem in attracting ethnic minority voters. That problem became noticeably worse following the infamous 2016 “Citizens of Nowhere” speech. May’s failure to keep the affluent ethnic minority voters that opted for David Cameron was a major reason why she lost her majority last June.
So why did the party allow this to happen? One entirely speculative possibility is that the local party were so set upon re-instating their friend and colleague that they’d threatened to cause a stink if CCHQ didn’t acquiesce. The party could choose between a majority and a few headlines about its cynicism; or no majority, and headlines about an entire Tory council going rogue in support of the racist joke woman. Perhaps the former just looked like the less damaging option.
But I suspect there’s another reason: simply, that the party knew it would get away with it. While Labour supporters have torn each other to shreds over accusations of anti-Semitism in the ranks, a depressingly high number of Tory activists seem supremely unbothered by events in Pendle. Perhaps, shocking though the thought is, the Tories actually care less about combatting racism than they do about kicking Labour.
To get away with it, though, the Tories require help – from a print media much bigger and scarier on the right than on the left, and from a broadcast media with a nasty habit of accepting ministerial framing. Witness the way Baroness Warsi’s claims of widespread Islamophobia in her party somehow seem to have sunk without trace. It is hard to imagine this happening to the opposition.
Accusations of Labour anti-Semitism have had acres of news coverage. That was quite right: the accusations were not a smear, and anti-Semitism is vile. But it would be nice if the vile racism going unchallenged in the Tory party received the same treatment once in a while, wouldn’t it?