Professor Swaran Singh, who yesterday published his independent review into discrimination in the Conservative party, is no stranger to racism. I remember lunch with him a few years ago when he described the racist abuse he received as a bewildered and lost young Doctor trying to find his way to his digs when he first arrived in this country from India. He used this grim introduction to life in Britain to contrast it with the kindness he received later in that same day from a stranger who picked him up in his car and insisted on driving him to his destination. No better a man to examine the complexities of prejudice in today’s Conservative party.
I was pleased to hear about his appointment and when he asked me to be one of two peer reviewers in advance of publication I accepted immediately. He was characteristically clear: “take it apart – challenge everything”. I’m sure he had in mind the fallout from the hopelessly discredited Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism in 2016, which failed to see the toxic depths of Labours anti-Jewish racism. He won’t be expecting a peerage for his efforts either. Where Chakrabarti stated explicitly that her report’s recommendations were “in the Party’s best interests” the Singh report is based on what would contribute to a “fair, open and modern democracy”. Whereas, the Chakrabarti report excluded all mention of the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s name, including an interview she had with him about his notorious “friends in Hamas” speech, the Singh report specifically mentions the Prime Minister in the top case study on the inappropriate use of language, inviting a response from Boris Johnson that apologises for offence taken. The critics were off the blocks within minutes of this report being published. Unlike Chakrabarti’s dismal, partisan effort, this is no whitewash.
Swaran is a scientist and he approached the task set for him with methodological exactitude. He’s also a Consultant psychiatrist who has seen at first hand the psychological scars left by prejudice. In my view, his report has skilfully blended the hard reality of statistical investigation with the emotional weight of some deeply uncomfortable personal testimony from party members who have experienced discrimination. The conclusions are borne out by the facts – the Conservative party is not institutionally racist but it has both a perception problem and a structural problem it needs to correct immediately.
Many people in Britain’s Muslim community share values that should make them natural Conservatives – the report describes these as “strong family and intergenerational bonds, self-reliance, community support and extensive social capital”. The report is clear that there is a stubborn perception that the Tories are a “cold house” for Muslims, and that it must do all it can to reverse this damaging and politically wasteful viewpoint. This is a political challenge that must be met and modelled at the highest levels of the party.
Fixing the structural problems will assist with this perception. For example, Singh finds the membership complaints process currently used by the party is unfit for purpose and should be substantially reformed, with much greater emphasis on training, support, monitoring and intervention from CCHQ. This will provide assurance to people, regardless of colour, creed, sex or sexuality, that discrimination on the grounds of any irrelevant characteristic is anti-Conservative and will be dealt with thoroughly.
The party’s co-chair Amanda Milling has already accepted the Singh report and recommendations in its entirety. She has apologised for the hurt caused by discrimination. This is welcome news. As a member of the Conservative Party and a Northern Irishman, I want our movement to be one that can belong to everyone. But words will be insufficient, action is now needed to lift the 27 recommendations off the page and make them a reality.
The Chakrabarti report was deficient in many ways but it did make some decent recommendations that were ignored for years by Labour, until it joined the fascist BNP in being only the second political party in history to be investigated and found guilty of unlawful racial discrimination by the country’s equality regulator. While the scale of the Conservative problem is much smaller, the price of dithering can still be very high. The prize is enormous too. Nasty party no more.
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