26 July 2023

Four years after the Singh Investigation, have the Conservatives learned its lessons?


Does the Conservative party have a problem with Muslims?

Away from the blare of polarised and often bitterly toxic social media noise, the man who was commissioned to find the answer and put things right has just published a progress review on his original inquiry. It amounts to two cheers and a gentle kick in the pants for the party machine.

In December 2019, the Conservatives tasked consultant psychiatrist Swaran Singh with determining the nature and extent of persistent allegations of discrimination within the party against people holding protected characteristics, as defined by the 2010 Equality Act. That scope includes race and religion, and the report paid particular attention to the charge of prejudice against Muslims, also characterised as ‘Islamophobia.’ Full disclosure – I know and respect Professor Singh, we both worked together at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and I took part in a peer review of the original report. He was also asked to make recommendations for change, which the party accepted in full. This week’s progress report looks at how these reforms were bedding in.

Many of us who have led official high-profile inquiries know that there is a world of difference between recommendations being accepted and actually implemented. Let me count the ways – bureaucratic inertia, time, resources, mendacity, competing priorities, intellectual bandwidth – all these and more often conspire to keep good sense on the dusty page and off the agenda.

So it is reassuring to see that in his update review Singh found continuing high levels of commitment from the party hierarchy to deliver improvements. Indeed, he goes out of his way to emphasise the genuine appetite of senior officials for transparency and transformational change.

This is just as well, because the headlines that unfairly maligned or misrepresented his original report – a detailed and dispassionate examination of the facts – obscured an ugly truth: the Tories, my party, had ‘multiple’ defects when it came to dealing with internal complaints of harassment or discrimination by members. The complaints process fell ‘significantly short’ of best practice. There were ‘serious shortcomings’ in the handling of some complaints by Muslim party members. 

So, what has been achieved and what still needs to be done?

The review found that a new code of conduct, a much simplified complaints process and new training materials on identifying antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred had all given confidence that there remains a continuing appetite for reform among party higher-ups. Unfortunately, the pace of that improvement had been impeded by multiple changes of the personnel who transmit the importance of this work to the grassroots.

That is no huge shock to the keen student of British politics. After all, the Conservatives’ internecine convulsions have consumed three leaders and seven party chairs since the report first landed. In this context, it is actually remarkable and heartening that of the 27 recommendations made, the majority have been completed or are ongoing.

But away from CCHQ, at local association level where many of the original complaints were inadequately investigated, it’s clear there’s much more work to do. In particular, training take-up for association members on diversity and inclusion was patchy. There was also concern over how and whether sanctions for proven discriminatory behaviour were sticking when applied and, in particular, a lack of understanding of the personal impact of the resolution process on complainants. Systems that could identify trends by place and type of discrimination complaints were still in their infancy. These are all fixable and it is clear again that Professor Singh feels he is pushing against an open door.

The reputation of the Conservative Party as a place that welcomes all people who share its political philosophy has gained added importance after a set of by-election results that augur very badly indeed for the next general election (Uxbridge’s Ulez revolt notwithstanding).

Of course, the principled case for being welcoming and inclusive is compelling enough on its own, but the electoral necessity of reaching out to Britons of all faiths and none is equally striking. There are close to two million Muslims in this country who are eligible to vote, and turnout among them is often lower when compared with other minority groups. That’s a lot of potential votes up for grabs. Moreover, studies on distribution suggest that in around 30 swing seats Muslim votes will make a difference.

As Rakib Ehsan has noted on these pages, many British Muslims share beliefs that are consistent with traditional conservative values of family, self-reliance and enterprise. For the religiously observant, the Koran also contains commitments to social justice and the fair distribution of wealth, neither of of which ought not to be seen as Labour’s exclusive terrain. 

Yet when you look at the electoral map of Britain, Muslims overwhelmingly support other parties. Many solidly Labour constituencies with high numbers of Muslim voters rely on outdated notions of clan politics to return large majorities in constituencies mired in chronic generational deprivation. Decades of loyalty to one party have not delivered tangible improvements in many of these places

There can be no no-go areas for a modern Conservative Party, but it must shake off the stubborn perception that it is a cold house for Muslims. Working in counter-extremism, some of the bravest people I know are Muslims who are implacably opposed to Islamist extremism and antisemitism. So, on a personal level, I find the idea that these people could not be comfortable and valued in the Conservative Party intolerable.

What of the common charge of ‘institutional racism’? Well, it’s worth noting that Singh’s original report categorically did not make that charge – and, indeed, he was criticised for not doing so. What he did offer was the kind of clear diagnosis and course of treatment you would expect from a professional clinician. It is that treatment which must now be speeded up, even if the progress report suggests the patient is in relatively good health.

There is much more work to do, both at CCHQ and association level, to attract people from all walks of life in Britain into the Conservative family. The moral and practical case for doing so is unanswerable. Cultural change takes time. It is a journey without a clear destination, because culture is what happens when no one is looking.

It is especially vital, however, against a backdrop of relentless identity politics, which offers nothing but a tired sectarian discourse which is inimical to political participation. For the Tory Party and, more importantly, the country, the talent and energy of all Britons cannot be squandered, surrendered as lost, or taken for granted.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.