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“I was nothing more than a tick-box exercise”: Ex-Tory candidate Shazia Awan on racism in the party

The former Conservative candidate for Leigh reveals how, as a woman from an ethnic minority background, she was singled out and made to feel unwelcome in the party.

By Shazia Awan-Scully

I remember the exact moment that the Conservative party first captivated me. It was 2007. David Cameron had appointed the first Muslim woman to his shadow cabinet, in the form of Sayeeda Warsi. I thought: Here is a man promising to change the face and feel of the party – and delivering on it.

With Operation Black Vote – an organisation that fights for BME communities to have a place in British politics – by my side, I began to navigate my way through the murky world of the Conservative party. I stood as a parliamentary candidate in England, and became the first Asian woman to address a Conservative party conference in Wales.

In many ways I was protected by some senior Conservatives who took me under their wing. Looking back, I think they understood the very real, nasty side of the Conservative party and wanted to shield me.

Shazia Awan with David Cameron. All photos: Shazia Awan

But they could not always be there to protect me from the reality of it.

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It has pained me to see the party that I have loved and admired since I was a teenager embark on a campaign that seems designed to divide and rule London. I never imagined that this party, under the leadership of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, would do and say things that are so fundamentally wrong, unacceptable and untrue. 

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As a proud Welsh Asian woman, I have experienced racism and prejudice on many levels over the years. Sometimes the comments have been casual (“you don’t look very Welsh to me” or “yes, you were born in Wales, but where are you originally from?”). I was born in Caerphilly and raised in Cardiff. I feel nothing but Welsh and proud, and find it astonishing that this answer is not enough for some people. When pressed, I’ve told people my family are “East African Asian”, and within the Conservative party have often been met with the response: “You don’t look black.”

This is the everyday racism that, as someone from an ethnic minority, I am used to and equipped to deal with.

Shazia Awan with Margaret Thatcher.

There have been times in my life when I’ve experienced racism – sinister and ugly, divisive by design, with the sole purpose of intimidating and making one feel inferior. It was this sort of deep-rooted hostility behind the scenes at the grassroots level of the Conservative party that eventually prompted me to let my membership expire.

I realised this when I had become immune to the casual racist slurs from some white Conservative men, who I felt wanted to exert a form of ownership over me.

The Conservative party has a detailed selection process, which involves writing essays, interviews and in-tray exercises. I was thrilled to have been approved onto the list of prospective candidates for the party. I applied and was called for an interview at a Welsh association.

But I didn’t get far. I suspect this was less about my ability, and more because I looked different.

How else could one explain why a Asian woman was asked by a panel of old white men: “What are your views on the rule of the British Raj?”

This vile question was not the end of my ordeal with the Conservatives. I have also been asked: “Why does the National Black Police Association exist? Do you people really need it?”

I’ve yet to figure out how the rule of the British Raj has any bearing on the Conservative party’s selection process, or indeed why my views on non-white police officers are relevant to the process of selecting a parliamentary candidate.

Looking back, I believe the questions were designed to rile me, to upset me, to make me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome and to exert a false sense of white superiority over me.

Shazia Awan with William Hague.

That experience toughened me up and opened my idealistic eyes to the harsh realities of politics in the UK if you are from an ethnic minority and/or a woman. So much so that, when the British National Party plastered photos of me from a Conservative party trip to Bosnia on its website homepage, saying Conservative party push forward black female candidate, I took it in my stride.

What I saw in the Tory party had taken away my ability to even feel affected by the destructive and racist rhetoric of a group as vile as the BNP. I was labouring under the misapprehension that I was part of the Big Society that David Cameron talked of.

That casual brand of racial stereotyping from my selection interview has now bubbled up into the upper echelons of the party in 2016. We see it in the mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan. We see it in Boris Johnson’s reference to Barack Obama as a “part-Kenyan president”.

Johnson also left me feeling disappointed and angry when he said, “In Islam and the Labour party there is a struggle going on, and in both cases Khan, whatever his real views is pandering to extremists. I don’t want him running our capital.” From this, I can only infer that Johnson does not want a British Asian Muslim man to head up City Hall.

The events in recent months have shown me that the Conservative party has not changed, is not ready for change, and ultimately deserves its “nasty party” epithet.

“Some Tories have tried to make political capital by demonising minorities instead of showing confidence in all citizens of our country,” Home Secretary Theresa May told party conference in 2002. “Some people call us the ‘nasty party’, I know it’s unfair but it’s the people out there we need to convince.”

She would have done well to recall this speech when news of the Home Office’s “Go home or face arrest” vans came out in 2013.

Shazia Awan with a Tory Vote for Change slogan poster.

Many decent Tories have reached out to tell me they are in utter dismay at the current state of their party and will be letting their membership lapse. I think the Conservative party has lost all touch with public opinion, and this will be its downfall.

The way that senior Tories have tried to legitimise discrediting Sadiq Khan tells me that there is no place for ethnic minorities in the Conservative party. I felt I was nothing more than a tick-box exercise for them: a young, articulate Asian, Muslim woman. One senior Tory even asked me: “It would be too good if you batted for the other team, wouldn’t it – you don’t do you?” I was baffled by this question. “No I don’t,” I said. In a very matter-of-fact tone, the reply was: “Well, then you’d really tick every box for us.”

The biggest failing I see is from the very man who first inspired me to want to become involved in the political process, the man who made me believe the Conservative party was a place for everyone: our Prime Minister, David Cameron. He has allowed this hate-filled campaign to flourish. And when he spoke of Khan as if he were an extremist sympathiser in the Commons, it made it clear to me that they are fighting Sadiq Khan for being Muslim first and Labour second.

Britain is not a country where we want to import the baseless and scaremongering politics we see from Donald Trump. Our Prime Minister has forgotten his own messaging about the community cohesion that once seemed to be his priority.

I cast my mind back to 1964 in the West Midlands constituency of Smethwick, which saw a Conservative politician Peter Griffiths elected on the slogan: “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour.” A bit like Goldsmith, Griffiths arrogantly refused to acknowledge that his campaign could be harmful.

But there is one startling difference between 1964 Smethwick and 2016 London. In the Commons, the prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson, called on Griffiths to be disowned. In contrast, Cameron has used the chamber to enthusiastically back Goldsmith’s campaign.

Shazia Awan with Lord Ashcroft.

The Tory smears are no longer coming from the grassroots, as I experienced them back when I was first getting into politics. They are coming from the very top of the Conservative party.

From Enoch Powell to Boris Johnson to Zac Goldsmith, I feel the Conservative party has exploited racism rather than opposed it. I can validate that from my own experience of being singled out because of my background. I feel that David Cameron should issue an apology to the British Asian community for the disrespectful rhetoric of this destructive mayoral campaign.

I am not afraid to speak out against injustice. That’s why I got involved in the political process. I will speak out against injustice even if that means speaking out against a party I have supported my whole life. So, as a lifelong Conservative voter, I urge all Londoners and my fellow Tories to show the feeble and unprincipled Goldsmith that such vitriolic politics are not welcome in London, and will not be tolerated. Vote for Sadiq Khan to be a mayor for all Londoners.

> Read Shazia’s condemnation of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign

> 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 also 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.