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14 November 2017

Almost everyone is being disingenuous about what Emma Dent Coad said

Neither the Labour MP, nor her defenders, nor her detractors have emerged well from the row. 

By Stephen Bush

Labour’s new MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, is under fire for a blog she wrote seven years ago in which she described Tory candidate Shaun Bailey as David Cameron’s “token ghetto boy”, and tweets in which she described him as a “ghetto man”. Political rows are often disingenuous but I think this one is particularly so, for reasons I’ll now set out. 

A few days ago, the Conservative MP Crispin Blunt got in a spot of bother for suggesting that Priti Patel, sacked last week as Secretary of State for International Development, had had her career fast-tracked because she was an Asian woman, and that this should excuse her breach of the ministerial code. The outrage then was the other way round but it was on similarly shaky ground, because Blunt was right.

One of the major aims of David Cameron’s political project was to eradicate the Conservatives’ ethnic penalty – essentially, to get well-paid ethnic minorities to vote the same way as well-paid white British people. That took many forms: changing policy, persuading ethnic minority Conservatives to become MPs, and, for the most part, promoting them rapidly. 

And the results, at least during David Cameron’s tenure, spoke for themselves. One reason why seats like Gloucester, Northampton North and North Swindon all returned Tory MPs with thumping majorities in 2015 was that in 2010, affluent ethnic minorities had stuck with Labour while their white British neighbours did not, keeping the opposition in contention in marginal seats across the country. In 2015, those same voters switched from Labour to Tory, and the result was the first Conservative parliamentary majority since 1992.

In addition, the Conservative parliamentary party has an astonishingly talented pool of ethnic minority MPs. It has also achieved the dream of many minority ethnic activists in the Labour Party, in selecting minority candidates in constituencies where the majority of voters are white British, a vital achievement if the proportion of minority ethnic MPs is ever to match the proportion of minority ethnic people in the country at large. (Just four visible minority Labour MPs represent majority-white seats: Chi Onwurah in Newcastle Central, Lisa Nandy in Wigan, Clive Lewis in Norwich South, and Mark Hendrick in Preston.)

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Equally, in the early 1990s, one reason why Tony Blair and the Labour Party finally got behind calls for all-women-shortlists was that Labour had historically struggled to win over the women’s vote and they were desperate to fix that problem.

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To take the specific example of Priti Patel, she was first brought into the cabinet by David Cameron in a reshuffle that was briefed as being a clear-out of the “white, middle-aged men”. (The Daily Mail went so far as to describe it as a “purge”.)  She was given the right to attend cabinet despite being a junior minister, partly so she could be a bigger asset on the airwaves in the coming general election.

Then, again, with Vote Leave, one of the unnoticed bits of brilliance that Matthew Elliott pulled off in that campaign was effectively reassuring Eurosceptic voters that voting for Brexit wasn’t the preserve of a racist fringe. Instrumental to that strategy were Gisela Stuart, thanks to her warm television presence and slight German accent, and Priti Patel. (The other unnoticed bit of brilliance was in selling the idea that leaving the EU would mean fairer and more open visa rules for people from the Commonwealth where, again, Patel was a significant asset to them.) That Patel had a good referendum campaign was a major reason why she was promoted to full cabinet rank by Theresa May in the first place.

So I don’t think the specific accusation about how ethnic minority candidates were viewed and subsequently treated can be fairly called offensive. They were intended to be “token” candidates as Dent Coad put it, or as Caroline Flint said of women under Gordon Brown, to be “window dressing”.  It is untrue to suggest that this behaviour is unique to the Conservative Party or confined solely to race or gender. Part of the reason why Corbynsceptics from Labour’s left wanted to replace Corbyn with Clive Lewis, and Corbynsceptics from Labour’s right wanted Dan Jarvis, is the belief that having a soldier, any soldier, would neuter the party’s perceived weaknesses over security issues.

The problem in Dent Coad’s blog and her tweets about Bailey is in not in the argument she made but the specific language used: describing him as a “token ghetto boy” and “ghetto man”. Dent Coad’s defenders, including Skwawkbox, a site that is regularly used as an unofficial organ of the Labour leader’s office, have noted that she used quote marks and was clearly sending up Bailey’s own description of himself.

It’s true that Bailey, while running for the Hammersmith consituency, described his politics as being “of the street”, described North Kensington, where he grew up, as a “depressing environment”, and nodded to stereotypes about black behaviour, saying he was “always getting into trouble” and the like. And it seems clear, given his failure to win over the voters of Hammersmith in 2010 that this language annoyed them, and perhaps black voters in particular.

It’s also worth noting that Dent Coad’s analysis of what would happen was proved correct. After Bailey failed to win Hammersmith, the blame was put on him and he later attacked David Cameron for freezing him out of Downing Street discussions, with friends of Bailey telling the press that Cameron’s Downing Street was an Eton-dominated clique.

There is however a vital difference between the words that Bailey used about himself and Dent Coad using them, even ironically. This isn’t a difficult concept: there’s an obvious difference between me writing that I am growing troublingly pudgy and someone emailing to let me know I have got chubby since the last time they saw me on Newsnight or whatever.

So Dent-Coad’s language can’t be excused by saying she was riffing off Bailey’s own words. But the letter from Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly to Corbyn complaining about the remarks also goes several steps too far, in widening the discussion from Dent Coad’s comments to a wider attack on the Labour Party more generally. It said Corbyn’s claim that “only Labour can unlock the talent of BAME people” was as “inaccurate as it is insulting”, and attacked Clive Lewis’ comment that you cannot be a Conservative and genuinely tackle racism.

This is, as with the Skwawkbox argument, something of a reach. It may be inaccurate to say that only Labour can unlock the talent of BAME people but it is no more insulting than saying the Conservatives are the only party that can help small business, or that you cannot reconcile Labour’s social justice aims with its Brexit policy, or to say as Cleverly himself once did that Labour’s “cosmic role in life [is] to screw things up, so we can come and fix them”.

Policy trade-offs do in fact exist and it is wholly reasonable to argue that, for instance, the planned cuts to public services cannot be reconciled with ending racial inequality. Equally, it would be wholly reasonable for Cleverly to say that only the Conservatives can “unlock the talent of BAME people” because only their fiscal plans would allow Britain’s ethnic minorities to make a success of their lives.

So, in short: no, it’s not offensive to say that David Cameron used ethnic minority Conservatives to signal to the socially liberal and ethnic minorities that the Conservative Party had changed. It is offensive to use the word “ghetto man” to do it, even if you are riffing off offensive language. And it’s just silly to pretend that policy trade-offs don’t exist.