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Paul Vallely: Politicians put votes before cohesion

01 March 2024

With an eye on an election, Conservatives aim to stoke division, says Paul Vallely


Lee Anderson MP speaks at the launch of the Popular Conservatism movement in central London last month

Lee Anderson MP speaks at the launch of the Popular Conservatism movement in central London last month

WHAT is the real reason behind the Government’s decision to axe the funding for the Inter Faith Network (IFN)? The Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, says that it is because the organisation has elected a trustee from the Muslim Council of Britain, a body that his office says — without producing plausible evidence — does not “uphold British values”. Yet it now emerges that the decision to defund the IFN was taken three months before that trustee was elected.

Closing down a forum for Muslim-Jewish dialogue seems ill-judged when anti-Semitic incidents have doubled and Islamophobia has trebled, thanks to the Israel-Gaza conflict.

What is going on in the Conservative Party? Its former chairman, Baroness Warsi, offers two alternatives: a concatenation of personal prejudice, or a sinister election strategy. “My party has learned nothing,” she says, if it thinks that “projecting as rabid racists is going to win us votes at the next election”.

This week, the former Tory deputy chairman, Lee Anderson, claimed, ludicrously, that Islamists had “got control” of London after its Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, had “given our capital city away to his mates”. Mr Anderson was talking about a Mayor who lit up City Hall with the colours of the Israeli flag after the 7 October massacre and who has received death threats for apostasy after voting for same-sex marriage.

Yet, when Mr Anderson was suspended from the Conservative Party, his fellow MPs, terrified of a Red Wall backlash, reported a flood of emails from Tory activists calling Rishi Sunak a “snake” for removing the whip from the refractory MP.

The Tories have a dodgy history on all of this. In 2016, the Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith had repeatedly to defend himself against claims of Islamophobia after his smearing of Mr Khan. In 2018, after Boris Johnson wrote a column comparing Muslim women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, Islamophobic incidents spiked. In 2022, Nusrat Ghani claimed that she was dismissed as a Tory minister after being told that her “Muslimness” was “making colleagues feel uncomfortable”.

The list goes on. Last week, the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman repeated Mr Anderson’s claim about an Islamist takeover, in slightly less  demotic language, and Paul Scully, another former Tory minister, declared parts of London and Birmingham no-go areas, “mainly because of doctrine”.

The response of current ministers has been to quibble pedantically over the allegation that the party is riddled with Islamophobia. The Business Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, insisted that the term protects Islam from criticism — eerily mirroring the claim that criticism of the policies of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.

Such semantic slipperiness suggests that what is really going on here is an attempt to identify “wedge issues” on which to attack opponents. Mr Sunak’s refusal to condemn Mr Anderson for Islamophobia echoes Sir Keir Starmer’s tardy reluctance to withdraw support from the Labour candidate in the Rochdale by-election over his anti-Semitic remarks. For both leaders, pursuing electoral advantage appears more important than furthering community cohesion.

Ironically, promoting such cohesion has been one of the key functions of the IFN and its 200 member organisations over three decades. With an election in the offing, it seems that the IFN will not be the only victim of this wilful stoking of hate, division, and intolerance.

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