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25 May 2021updated 26 May 2021 7:58am

What’s missing from the inquiry into Tory Islamophobia is as important as what’s in it

The inquiry’s relatively limited scope leaves major unanswered questions about the Conservatives and racism.

By Stephen Bush

Swaran Singh’s independent investigation into alleged Islamophobia in the Conservative Party has been published, and the party has accepted all of its recommendations.

The report’s proposals to improve the Conservatives’ complaints processes are good ones, but they also leave much unanswered.

The report finds that the party leadership does not interfere in the handling of complaints, and does not handle complaints relating to Islamophobia any differently to those relating to any other form of protected characteristic in the 2010 Equality Act.

It is, obviously, important that no evidence of interference by the leadership in complaints processes was found (indeed, the presence of interference was the cause of one of the three findings of unlawful activity in the EHRC’s probe into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party), but it is not the be-all and end-all. 

The finding that the party deals with complaints relating to anti-Muslim sentiment no worse or no better than complaints relating to any other protected characteristic has to be considered alongside the Conservatives’ handling of complaints of sexual harassment against the Delyn MP Rob Roberts. The party’s own inquiry into Roberts ruled that his conduct was “unacceptable” but did not result in withdrawing the whip from him, which suggests a rather broad definition of the word “unacceptable”.

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An organisation that takes as gentle an approach to investigating and punishing Islamophobia among its elected officials as it took towards sexual harassment in the initial Roberts case is, obviously, not guilty of the specific charge of “institutional” racism. But that is not the same as saying the organisation in question does not have serious problems.

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There is a broader problem in British public life: the idea that racism is ranked by flavour, ranging from a mild “Lemon & Herb” at the bottom to “institutional” at the top. But “institutional racism” is not a synonym for “very bad racism”. Under the Macpherson definition, which is accepted by every mainstream British political party, it means the specific failure of an organisation to provide “an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. You can provide an equal-opportunities poor service that happens to drive away people because of their colour or creed without being institutionally racist. This doesn’t mean you don’t have questions to answer.

Indeed, the Singh report itself acknowledges this, detailing how the Tory Party’s complaints processes fall far short of the gold standard. It puts forward a series of recommendations to fix this. But the problem with the report is that by having a relatively narrow focus – the unspoken question it has set out to answer is, “Is this problem institutional?” – the report avoids a number of important questions.

Ultimately, the reason this report exists is because Sajid Javid embarrassed the rest of the Tory leadership candidates into undertaking one, live on air in 2019. Even Rory Stewart, the avowed liberal in the race, had to be bounced into it by Javid, as did Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Isn’t that, in itself, something that the inquiry should mull over? The report finds that two-thirds of all incidents reported to the complaints database at CCHQ relate to allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination. To put that in context, anti-Muslim incidents make up just 3 per cent of all hate crimes in the United Kingdom. Isn’t that, again, something the report should consider?

Elsewhere, the report makes several familiar failings: when it looks at Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 mayoral campaign, too much time is spent deciding whether Goldsmith himself harboured racist sentiments. The truth of the Goldsmith mayoral campaign is that it sent letters to people with what it perceived to be “Hindu or Sikh surnames” warning that Sadiq Khan would tax their jewellery. I am not convinced that “Is Zac Goldsmith himself racist?” is a useful starting point.

That speaks to perhaps the biggest overarching problem: that at times it feels as if the report’s unspoken task was to help a Conservative prime minister get through a PMQs on the topic of racism in the party ranks, rather than to provide a genuinely exhaustive account of the problem.