The Singh investigation into racism in the Conservative party provides a historic opportunity for the party to reset its relationship with Muslim communities.
Not because the investigation was a complete whitewash. It wasn’t. There were serious concerns at the start that the investigation was established with restrictive terms of reference that excluded systemic racism, had an adviser who believed the idea of Islamophobia should be “junked”, and selected a peer reviewer who came from a thinktank that devoted an entire anthology to attacking the very idea of Islamophobia. Despite this, the investigation was not entirely toothless. Important recommendations include an overhaul of the complaints process, the reopening of cases that have fallen short of the expected standards and an outreach strategy focusing on meaningful engagement with Muslim communities.
But the investigation did live up to one concern raised from the start: it failed to diagnose the root causes of the sheer scale of racist incidents it identified. The institutional failings that allowed a racist mayoral campaign to represent the party have been brushed over; the structural failings that allowed, for example, the chair of the party to falsely claim that there were no Islamophobia complaints outstanding, have been ignored; and the endemic Islamophobia that has led to more than half of the party’s members believing conspiracy theories about Muslims has been overlooked.
Still, the Singh investigation presents the Conservative party with another historic opportunity to do the right thing.
Will the party truly acknowledge the scale of Islamophobia within it, despite the denials of the past, and truly apologise for its institutional failings?
For example, will former party chair Brandon Lewis apologise after he stated on LBC in 2018: “I would dispute that [Islamophobia in the party] is an issue that exists in the first place”? Will the former vice-chair, Kemi Badenoch, apologise for claiming that calls to tackle Islamophobia had a “political motive”?
Will the party take action on complaints that had previously been unreasonably ignored, and allow appeals on historic cases?
Will the party take measures that would prevent councillors being quietly reinstated after having been suspended over posting Islamophobic or racist content online, in one case, after as little as 13 days? And will checks be tougher in order to avoid those who have previously called Muslims “parasites” in social media posts being able to hold elected office for the party?
Will the leadership truly reach out to Muslims within the party and mainstream Muslim organisations, including those who are critical of its approach to Islamophobia?
On past evidence, it seems likely that structural change may be too much to stomach. Instead, the party may do the absolute minimum and focus on cosmetic changes to the complaints process and code of conduct. Such an approach would represent a box-ticking exercise in response to the Singh recommendations, falling well short of the broader set of recommendations set out in the Muslim Council of Britain’s letter to the investigation, which was included in the report’s appendix.
A more holistic approach will not be easy. There will be a huge temptation to take what may ostensibly be the easy way out. Especially as even meaningful steps may not stave off the threat of potential action from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – which is a possibility due to the investigation explicitly stating that it did not have the power to determine any breach of the Conservative party’s legal duty.
But a more holistic approach is very necessary if the party really wants a reset of its relationship with Muslim communities.
There are some green shoots, not least the words of the co-chair of the Conservative party, Amanda Milling, who promised to prioritise “eliminating discrimination”.
Words must, however, be followed by meaningful and systemic change.
As someone who has campaigned on this issue for many years, alongside many others, all we want is a governing party that treats us as equal citizens. In the 21st century, this should not be too much to ask.