Tory activist Shazia Awan: Zac Goldsmith’s damaging, exploitative and ugly campaign puts me off politics as a BME candidate

The former Conservative party parliamentary candidate for Leigh claims the Tory London mayoral campaign is dragging the party back to the days of Enoch Powell.

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Every political party has its flaws. If you make the leap into the world of politics you learn quickly that every battle cannot be yours to fight.

No party is perfect. There were times when I shuddered at the irrelevant and yet divisive questions I was asked by grassroots activists. One incident has stayed with me. I still find it far too ugly to fully articulate. I recall being alone in my car in tears, after being given an unnecessary grilling by an old, stereotypical all-white male panel of a Conservative Association in Wales. By their reaction to me, and the way I was treated in the interview, one can only imagine I was the first and last "brown" face to cross the threshold of that Association’s door.

Needless to say, I have since developed a thick skin. That was the first and last time I allowed myself to shed tears over such an injustice. I’ve learned that if you want to make positive changes in this world you need to be part of the process, speak out for what you believe to be right, and speak out to expose the wrong. 

Now is time for the latter. The way the Zac Goldsmith mayoral campaign is being run is disgraceful. Reading the rhetoric and leaflets led me right back into my mind to the incident in Wales. It seems little has changed. The Conservative party talks about "One Nation" and "we are all in this together". But as the Goldsmith campaign has unfolded, to me it feels more like divide-and-rule.


William Hague and Shazia Awan. All photos: Shazia Awan

Friends have said to me: "If you have any kind of political aspirations within this party keep quiet."

I just can't do that anymore. It's not who I am. If that means I never fulfil my dream of serving my country as an elected Member of Parliament, then so be it. That would be a sad indictment of the party political system, suggesting it is more interested in career politicians, who choose to set aside their beliefs mindlessly in order to swallow the party line, instead of genuinely standing for what they believe. 

Let me be clear, I have met some of my closest friends through the Conservative party. The problems we all knew about were at the grassroots. I never encountered them from those at the heart of leading the party forward until now. The London mayoral campaign has a distinct air of arrogance about it; the refusal to acknowledge what they are doing is destructive, and shows me the tide has turned.

I am disgusted and deeply upset by the intrusive, patronising and divisive tactics being used by the party in the mayoral race. To resort to, for want of a better description, "racially profiling", in one of the most beautifully diverse cities in the world where the black, minority and ethnic population makes up 44 per cent of the vote is not only a desperate and arguably foolish tactic but one that will no doubt see a Labour mayor voted in.


Shazia Awan meeting Margaret Thatcher.

One could perhaps forgive a lone leaflet, if the party apologised and was willing to say "we got it wrong". Then we could move on. However, one cannot forgive a collection of divisive literature and rhetoric within this negative campaign. Worse still is the very real thought that they do know that they are in controversial territory of their own creation, and want to use it as an opportunity to create a wedge and vitriolic rhetoric between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

I can't help but now think the tone of this campaign tells us something wider about the party as a whole in terms of its attitude to ethnic minority voters and candidates that I have never acknowledged before.

The Boris Johnson campaign never took such an ugly turn. The team working on this campaign has continued to refer to what seems a bumper book of Asian names. These are not the colonial days where religion can be used as a proxy for race and vice versa. There are many mixed marriages/relationships that happily cross what were previously perceived cultural divides.

Is the Tory party now so behind the times that it is trying to base our concerns, desires, hopes and dreams on our “brown sounding” surnames? I know of a woman who is from Singapore who said she received a letter about her gold jewellery (which she doesn’t have!) being subject to a tax from Khan where her white, Christian partner received a very generic “Vote Zac” letter. This is a simplistic and disappointing approach from the Conservative party – they should remember that the real issues, which are important to Londoners, are housing, transport and the cost of living. We cannot be divided by the colour of our skin or our religion. 

The Conservative party had the perfect mayoral candidate in Syed Kamall (who topped the London Conservative MEP list). Of course, they didn’t select him. This would be a different race if he were the candidate. If I still lived in London I would be fundamentally unable to cast a vote for the party I have supported for so many years. I feel at a loss and ashamed by this whole affair. 

I always admired Goldsmith and felt he was a principled Tory, an environmental campaigner, someone who, despite the privilege he was born into, truly loves the real London and the people that make this city great. All I see now is a man who is too weak to stand up to those directing his campaign, and as a result ruining his own reputation and credibility in the fickle pursuit of power.


Theresa May with Shazia Awan.

Reading Tory campaign literature of recent weeks you would be forgiven for thinking that all Indian households are bursting with gold jewellery and they all admire Narendra Modi and dislike Muslims. On Khan, the Goldsmith camp has said, “His party supports a wealth tax on family jewellery . . . As a government minister he did not use his position to speak about Sri Lanka or the Tamil community.” It’s a bizarre approach and one that has offended and disheartened many. Why seek to have sectarian policies?

The thing that has riled me above all else is the letter signed by our Prime Minister specifically targeting the Punjabi Sikh and Gujarati Hindu communities. I feel these letters play into stereotypes and are designed to expose deep wounds, while exploiting historical racial and religious divisions. The letter says:

“Closer ties between the UK and India have been a priority for me as Prime Minister. I was pleased to join Zac and thousands of British Gujaratis in welcoming Prime Minister Modi to the UK last year.”

As a human rights solicitor, Khan was right to not welcome him. Modi was barred from entering the country at one time because he failed to stop anti-Muslim riots in which over 1,000 people died.

The letter also alludes to Goldsmith wanting to keep "our streets safe from terror attacks". Why did Muslims not get a letter saying that? Do those leading this campaign think Muslims don't want to keep our streets safe? Or is this a tactic to position Sikhs and Hindus against Muslims? That is the implication here.

The language used about Khan has been very damaging, but not to Khan’s positive and upbeat campaign. The Tory party has damaged itself. It’s underestimated the people of London. Londoners can see through these tactics. Using words like "radical" and "dangerous" to describe Khan is unacceptable. These words could easily be associated with terror and extremism and this is no accident; this is designed to create fear.

Extremism is a concern for us all, regardless of religion or the colour of our skin. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, who should know better has referred to Khan as a “Labour lackey who speaks alongside extremists” and “cannot be trusted” to keep London safe. This, teamed with everything else, seems to me to be a crude and blatant attempt to tap into anti-Muslim prejudice.

The difference I see between my white friends' outlook and mine are limited. Immigrant families like mine who came over from Uganda and elsewhere have worked hard to integrate and forge our place in society. I imagine we are the ones Enoch Powell feared would overwhelm British culture and society when he gave his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. I believe that, under Cameron's strong leadership, he had moved away from that "Nasty Party" idea. But if the current mayoral campaign is anything to go by, there is a very real danger that it will drag the party back to the prejudice, intolerance and ignorance of 50 years ago.

I was passionately inspired by David Cameron to get involved in the political process; I thought I could one day make a difference. The sad irony is the very party I have loved so dearly for so long is now the very thing that has put me off the political process.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian's feature on the racial politics of Zac Goldsmith's mayoral campaign

Shazia Awan runs SME Chicabel. She was named one of Management Today’s 35 Under 35 and is an alumni of the American Embassy and Department of States's International Leaders programme. She is a PR consultant with 15 years' experience of working on national brand campaigns and was the first Asian woman to address a Welsh Tory party conference. You can follow her on Twitter @shaziaawan.

Shazia Awan-Scully is an equality activist. She is launching Women Create, a social enterprise to help women and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into enterprise and employment. She is Vice President of the Council for Voluntary Youth Services in Wales and she was the first Asian woman to address a Welsh Tory party conference. You can follow her @shaziaawan.