Candidates of Asian and African origin who thought they had broken through the Conservative Party's glass ceiling were in for a shock.
When Emran Uddin, Wale Oguntona and Samson Omosule won the Conservative Party's nomination for elections to the East London council of Barking and Dagenham, a stronghold of the xenophobic British National Party (BNP), they were clearly over the moon. They thought that, finally, they had broken through the Tory glass ceiling that had prevented ethnic minorities from getting in until now. The Tories, it seemed to them, had indeed changed under David Cameron and become more inclusive.
But, alas, there are some things that never change; or, as the French say, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose — the more it changes the more it remains the same. For they soon discovered that the party was not exactly enthusiastic about its non-white candidates and, indeed, seemed embarrassed about acknowledging them in public.
When the publicity material arrived, they were shocked to find that their photographs had not been included, whereas their white colleagues had their pictures prominently featured. They were also subtly advised to keep a low profile and not to speak to the media without official authorisation.
Apparently the party feared that promoting Asian and African candidates would not play well with the BNP supporters who see immigrants as a “threat” to their jobs and “way of life”. But as news of the “invisible” Tory trio spread, local immigrant groups reacted with anger and accused the Tory leadership of “pandering to prejudice” instead of fighting it.
“There is a clear intent from the Conservative Party to airbrush its candidates out of these leaflets. It is extremely disappointing given that the Conservative leadership recognises the power of the black vote. This is pandering to prejudice. You can either confront hatred or pander to it, as they are doing by having only white faces on their material,” Simon Woodley of the Operation Black Vote told The Observer.
The newspaper reproduced copies of the Tories' campaign leaflets which clearly showed that they contained pictures of only white candidates. Non-white contenders had only their telephone numbers and email addresses against their names. Tories denied that their pictures had been deliberately left out and claimed that the reason for the omission was that the full list of candidates for the constituency had not been finalised when the leaflets were printed.
But, as The Observer pointed out, they “failed to explain” how was it then that they were able to include the names and other details of these candidates. It said the fact was that the party appeared to be “wary” of promoting its non-white candidates in areas where the BNP was a “force” and there was “strong anti-immigrant feeling”.
Local residents appeared to confirm the Tories' policy of keeping their ethnic minority candidates under wraps. Few claimed to have seen them in public.
A Labour candidate was reported as saying that neither she nor any other member of her team had ever spotted her Tory opponent who is of African origin.
“It would appear they do not want to let the gentleman out,” she said.
The row is embarrassing for Mr. Cameron who has been trumpeting the Tories' conversion to the idea of a racially diverse party. Since becoming the party leader nearly five years ago he has tried desperately hard to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional narrow electoral base of “Little Englanders” and sought to promote it as an inclusive and modern political platform for all Britons irrespective of their class background or ethnic origin.
This has involved toning down the party's previously shrill anti- immigrant agenda, promoting the few non-whites that it has among its ranks and, for the first time, making a serious attempt to recruit members from ethnic minorities. Not that everyone in the party is happy with his approach (in fact a significant section of “grassroots” Tories is believed to be quietly fuming) but so far he has been able to prevent an open revolt.
So, the coming elections were to be the first real test of new-look Tories. What a shame, then, that they have faltered at the very first hurdle.
“Having come thus far, the Tories appear to have suffered a sudden attack of nerves,” said one critic.
Labour has been quick to seize on the Tories' embarrassment with one senior party MP accusing them of running “scared” of BNP. But the fact is that Labour's own record of tackling BNP has been pretty shameful. It is almost as guilty as the Tories of trying to play catch-up with BNP by scare-mongering about immigration rather than addressing the real issues that have led to the rise of such a party. And with elections round the corner, both Labour and the Tories have stepped up their rhetoric on immigration, often sounding as xenophobic as the BNP xenophobes they condemn.
Even as I write this, the Tories are involved in a spat over an allegedly inflammatory anti-immigrant election leaflet. The leaflet, distributed in Romford, a parliamentary constituency in north-east London, and featuring the shadow home office minister Andrew Rosindell warns against the “floodgates” of migration being opened and says: “We simply cannot go on like this”.
While seeking to distance himself from the material, Mr. Rosindell has defended its contents.
“I don't think they're inflammatory; it's how people feel,” he said.
By the way, Romford is adjacent to Barking and Dagenham — the scene of the Tories' “airbrushed” non-white candidates.
Just a coincidence?