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Talk to Richmond Conservatives on appealing to Muslim voters

An explanation of why Muslims mainly vote for the Labour Party, and how Conservatives can rectify this.


Talk on 19 March 2018. Posted 21 May 2018

I gave a short talk to Richmond Park and North Kingston Conservative Association at the constituency offices in Richmond.

Below are:

  1. A recording of the 20-minute talk.
  2. A transcript of the talk as some prefer reading to listening.
  3. A short summary of part of the question and answer session with items of continuing relevance.

1. The 20-minute talk

I recorded the talk on my iPhone X using a Sennheiser digital lapel microphone for best quality sound. You can hear it below.

2. A transcript of the talk

I normally speak from a fully written script. Accordingly it was quite practical for me to amend that to harmonise with what I actually said!

When you are trying to sell anything, whether baked beans, or a political party, you have to understand the customer.

Sadly, many Conservative politicians do not understand Muslim voters.

I’m going to tackle six questions:

  1. What qualifies me to talk about this subject?
  2. Who are British Muslims?
  3. What makes them different?
  4. How do Muslims vote?
  5. What have Conservatives said to Muslim voters?
  6. What should we do different?

1. What qualifies me to talk about this issue?

I have lived in the UK for over 65 years, from when I was less than two years old.

I’ve seen this country from two completely different perspectives:

So basically, two parts of my life, which were like chalk and cheese. I find that helps me to understand the world in a way that many people from Muslim backgrounds for example who live in darkest Bradford do not. And equally white British people from the shires don’t see the world [properly] from the other side.

When I was young I was left-wing, like many young people are, but I joined the Conservative party at the age of 33 for one reason.  I became convinced about the virtues of free-market capitalism, and I could see Margaret Thatcher transforming British society.

For the last 30+ years I’ve been a Conservative with a big “C” but I’m not a conservative with a small “c.” I saw Margaret Thatcher changing things; that’s why I joined the Party.

The very first time I attended the Party Conference was the year the IRA bombed it. That’s a coincidence! I didn’t go again until 2008 but that was because I just got very busy with work.

2. Who are British Muslims?

There are about 3 million; about 5% of the population although that percentage will grow because it’s a much younger demographic community than the white British community.

So if you are looking at children under the age of 9 for example, from memory it’s [Muslims] something like 10% or 12%; it’s a much higher percentage when you are looking at much younger age groups. Although eventually it will stabilise because birth patterns amongst immigrant communities tend to eventually mirror those of the community that they have moved into. There are signs of that already happening for example with the Algerian community in France. 

Ethnically, even now, more than half of them are descended from immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, including me. Although the proportion of people from Arab backgrounds, African backgrounds and other minorities is growing.

And don’t forget that at least 100,000 Muslims in this country are white British converts.

The current [UK] ambassador to Saudi Arabia for example is one of them. Somebody I have liaised with an enormous amount over the last 7 years is a chap who is the Director of one of my charity projects and he was Head Boy at Eton and his great-grandfather was Lord Jellicoe who led the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland.

So Muslims are extremely varied.

3. What makes Muslims different?

The most important thing about Muslims, which should be obvious, is that they are defined by having a religious belief. That’s the only thing that Muslims have in common.

While that should be obvious, many people who don’t have a religious belief themselves overlook the importance of that, and focus on Muslims only in their capacity as ethnic minorities. I think that’s a fundamental mistake.

Yes, they are an ethnic minority, but their religion really, really matters to most of them. That’s what makes them different.

4. How do Muslims vote?

On average, people’s voting behaviour reflects their socio-economic background. Yes, there are champagne socialists and there are working-class Tories.

But on average, the more you earn, the more likely you are to vote Conservative. Just as a statement of fact, not about how people should behave but how people do behave.

Suppose I told you somebody owns a business which employs 10 people and makes him £200,000 per year. And I ask you to guess how this person votes. Your logical guess should be that this person votes Conservative.

If I give you one extra fact, that this person is a Muslim, your logical choice should change, again in terms of what this person will actually do as opposed to what you think he should do. Because your logical guess should be that he then votes Labour.

Muslims overwhelmingly vote Labour.

In 2015 we managed to get 25% of them to vote for us, which was a big improvement on about 15% in 2010 but in 2017 we will have fallen back although I haven’t seen any religion-specific polling but there is ethnic-minority polling which shows that we fell back with ethnic minorities as a whole. And as I said, most Muslims, apart from the white British converts, are ethnic minorities.

5. What have Conservatives said to Muslims voters?

My wife and I were both in our mid-teens. I did originally have a precise age in here but she [my wife] made me take it out!

We were in our mid-teens when Enoch Powell made his “Rivers of Blood” speech. And I know that the phrase “Rivers of blood” does not appear in the speech, but that’s what everybody calls it, and that’s what I call it.

That speech did not affect me directly because I lived in a Manchester slum in a very mixed environment, and nothing changed in the behaviour of my neighbours as a consequence.

My wife’s family lived in a suburb that was almost all white. And neighbours started sending her family hate mail. People that they previously got on with very well.

And people have very long memories.

When I started writing articles on Conservative Home, and elsewhere, mentioning Enoch Powell as a reason why ethnic minorities don’t vote Conservative, some people pooh-poohed it. They said I was living in the past. That I was out of touch. “It was decades ago Amin.

That’s why I was delighted when Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups amongst ethnic minorities which he ran in 2012 found Enoch Powell spontaneously being mentioned by ethnic minority people as a reason why they didn’t vote Conservative. Even though in some cases these people were not even born when Enoch Powell was making his speeches.

For more details about those articles, if you just search for Enoch Powell’s name on my website you’ll find them.

The sad thing is that there have been many other Conservatives who also made British Muslims less likely to vote Conservative.

I’m not going to give you a long list, but I do have two examples where both the policy was wrong and the words were wrong, and two other cases where the policy was actually absolutely right, but the words were still wrong.

My first villain, and I think of him that way, is Philip Hollobone MP.

In 2014, he promoted a private members bill to ban the wearing of the niqab and the burqa in public.

The niqab is the veil that covers the face with a slit for the eyes, the burqa is a thing that goes over your head with a gauze to look through.

I personally don’t like women wearing them. But, both I and more importantly Theresa May are absolutely adamant about people’s freedom to dress as they wish.

But the problem is that the average voter, and certainly the average Muslim voter, cannot tell the difference between a private members bill from a backbencher which is going to go absolutely nowhere, and official Conservative Party Government policy. They can’t.

We at the Conservative Muslim Forum were getting emails from Muslims out in the country saying “Why is the Conservative Party doing this?” I went and saw Philip Hollobone, tried to discourage him, couldn’t get anywhere. The Bill of course died. It got nowhere at all, he was massively down in the ballot, [which ranks private members to see whose Bill will get Parliamentary time] I’m not even sure he was in the ballot. The Bill didn’t have the slightest chance of going anywhere, but it hurt us. 

My second villain is contemporaneous. It’s Councillor Geoff Driver, the leader of Lancashire County Council. He’s a Conservative.

He’s got a personal obsession with banning non-stun meat, including non-stunned halal meat, which is served in some Lancashire schools where they have very high percentages of Muslim pupils.

Now the view on stunning amongst Muslims is not uniform, unlike the view on stunning amongst Jews.

For Jews it’s very clear. If an animal has been stunned it can never be kosher. It doesn’t matter who kills it, how the person kills it, the act of stunning stops it being kosher.

With Muslims, you get two opinions. Either you can stun, and provided that you kill it the right way it’s halal, or if you stun even if you kill it the right way it’s not halal. That’s why Geoff Driver is able to argue that he is still providing halal except that its stunned halal meat.

Some people will accept that, some people won’t but it’s a total outrage to all British Muslims, including the ones who at a personal level would be willing to eat it. Because what you are saying to those Muslims who regard that meat as not halal is “Tough.”

I can’t think of any other way of making British Muslims hate the Conservative Party more. And again people don’t see him as one guy in Lancashire Council, the leader of Lancashire Council; they seem him as a Conservative.

The more challenging cases are where the policy was right, is right, but the words somehow were still wrong.

And again, I’ve got two examples.

David Cameron has spoken about radicalisation on many occasions.

This started with his 2011 speech at the Munich Security Conference, and most recently about a week and a bit ago in Washington. He’s saying the same things, and he was right in 2011 and he’s right now.

And I agree with his policy.

In fact 2011, the Munich speech was the first time I ever appeared on the national news, because the BBC got me to go on the news as one of the rare Muslims willing to speak on David Cameron’s side on this issue.

The problem is that David Cameron has never managed to sound sympathetic to British Muslims when he’s making his speeches about radicalisation.

When I read his speeches and listen to him, he doesn’t sound sympathetic, and I’m on his side. Just imagine how he comes over to people who are more nuanced, or who know less about the issue.

Sadly, he never asked me for help on speech writing! Equally I haven’t volunteered, because I know I would be wasting my time volunteering. It’s a classic of having the right policy, but just not managing to find the right words to express it.

My second example, where the news is actually a bit better, is on British Values, or what most of the time used to be called British Values.

I’m not going to repeat the list of values. Everybody knows about them: democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, respect etc.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the values, and almost all British Muslims support them, apart from a few British Muslims who frankly are the bad guys.

The problem I found, listening to other people, was calling them “British Values.

Personally, I just found the name a bit silly, because there’s nothing exclusively British about them. They are French values, American values, Swedish values, Muslim values as much as they are British values.

The name I just thought was a bit silly, but other British Muslims took it incredibly badly.

Thinking about it, to be completely honest, it sounds like the white colonial administrator come to tell the brown savages how to be civilised.

For several years, I’ve been telling every senior Conservative I can find, and I’ve had the opportunity to tell this 1-1 to Theresa May, to stop calling them “British values.

I seem to have got through.

About a week or so ago, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to get its new correct name right, Sajid Javid published a Green paper on integration. In the front of that is a page from the Prime Minister. What caught my eye, [were the words ] because I’ve read this page though I haven’t read the rest of the paper yet, although I intend to, and I’ll quote:

“This is a moment for us to proudly promote the values that unite us – democracy, free speech, mutual respect, and the rule of law. These values allow us to enjoy our individual freedoms, to lead varied lives in diverse communities. But they come with a responsibility to respect the rights of others to live as they choose. This is why our multi-ethnic, multi-faith society has been so successful. These values must prevail.”

Only somebody who is obsessing about the issue like me will notice what Theresa May doesn’t say. She did not use the words “British values.” So I think she listened to me.

6. What should we do different?

The most important thing, no surprise given what I have been saying earlier, is to get our language right.

I focused on this at a fringe meeting at the 2014 Welsh Conservatives Conference. It’s the one and only time I have been to the Welsh Conservatives Conference; it’s a bit remote.

You can find the speech quite easily on my website by searching for the word Welsh on my website because it’s a word I use so rarely.

The key is to avoid language that divides.

Train yourself to always use the word “we” for only one purpose; to refer to everybody in the country. So when talking about the Conservative Party, don’t use the word “we”; talk about Conservatives.

Formulations that sound so natural can be incredibly damaging. Like “Your values are the same as our values.” That implies that there is a complete disconnect between “You” and “Us.

Secondly, don’t try to defend the past.

Many Muslims care passionately about what they regard as the mess that the British Empire left behind in places like Kashmir and Palestine.

If that comes up, respond by saying that none of us can change the past, which is true, and instead move the discussion on to what we can do together to make the future better.

And of course for local elections, reminded everybody that local councils do not have any control over foreign policy!

Apart from the fact that we have much better policies on things like tax, the economy, schools, there’s one overarching point that should, that will play very well with British Muslims, if we can communicate it right.

Philosophically, even though the Labour Party does contain many religious people, I believe the ideological basis of the Labour Party today is primarily atheist.

The Labour Party really doesn’t understand religion and the importance of religion to people.

We need to get over to Muslim voters that, because so many leading Conservatives are devoted Christians, from the Prime Minister down, we understand the importance of what it means to be a Muslim in a way that the Labour Party does not.

That leads on to an educational point.

I want you to imagine yourself talking to a voter who is a practising Jew.

Imagine also that you have never heard of Abraham leaving his home in Mesopotamia, you’ve never heard of Joseph going down into Egypt and the problems of Pharaoh and the grain, never heard of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, or of Babylon conquering Jerusalem.

How effectively do you think you could get over to that voter that you really cared about his freedom to practice Judaism? When you know nothing at all about what Judaism means.

Unfortunately, many Conservative campaigners have a roughly equivalent ignorance of Islam. They know next to nothing about it apart from what they see on television about ISIS. There really is no substitute for education.

As a bare minimum, my website has a 10-page guide to Islam for non-Muslims. I wrote it many years ago because my wife pointed out how there was a crying lack of anything of that sort of shortness [about Islam.] We couldn’t find anything anywhere, so eventually I wrote it myself.

If you want real credibility, the Quran is actually quite easy to read.

My website recommends one particular translation of the Quran for first-time readers. It has a guide to Quran translations generally, but there is one, published by Oxford University Press, translated in 2006 by Muhammad [Abdel] Haleem which is the one that I recommend.

In 30 years of serving clients as a tax adviser, I learned something quite fundamental.

The customer is always right!

If Muslims are not voting Conservative, it’s our fault.

3. A short summary of part of the question and answer session

The question and answer session was also recorded. However, I am not publishing the audio recording for three reasons:

  1. I do not have the permission of those asking questions to publish their recording.
  2. While the sound quality of my responses is very clear, the questioners were some distance from the microphone. Accordingly, in many cases their questions are almost inaudible.
  3. Most importantly, the live dialogue heard cold is not particularly informative.

Instead, I have listened to the Q&A session and, where I regard the questions as being worth sharing, have written down a condensed version of the questions and my responses, improving the clarity of both the question and the response where appropriate.

Muslims in my area are very concerned about Islamophobia and the way this has increased after the Brexit referendum. How much harm will Brexit do to our party’s appeal to Muslims?

It is often overlooked that about 30% of British Muslims voted for Brexit. It appears that a key motivating factor was happiness at East European EU citizens having priority over relatives from the Indian subcontinent when coming to the UK. Rightly or wrongly, some British Muslims were led to believe that immigration opportunities from the Indian subcontinent would improve after Brexit.

The legal timetable means that, one way or another, the Brexit issue should be resolved by the time of the next general election, so Brexit hopefully will not be a reason for British Muslims to vote for other parties.

Obviously, in the impending local elections, Brexit should strictly not be an issue since local councillors have no control over foreign policy.

In our area, we find it very hard to get BME individuals to stand as Conservative candidates. Do you have any suggestions?

It is of course vital for the Conservative Party’s candidates to look like the people they aspire to represent.

It is extremely encouraging that our candidates for Mayor of Tower Hamlets and for Mayor of Newham are both Muslim women, and in the case of Newham somebody who wears a hijab. Even though both candidates are relatively unlikely to win, their candidacy demonstrates how the Conservative Party is changing. This should make it easier in the future to recruit Muslims as council candidates.

The message should be that this is our shared country, and if you subscribe to what the Conservative Party stands for, you have as much right to stand as a candidate as your Muslim friend who is standing for the Labour Party.

What can the Conservative Party do to be seen as the champion of employment equality for Muslims?

Both David Cameron and Theresa May have spoken about the iniquity of job discrimination and the fact that candidates with Muslim names are less likely to be selected for interview than candidates with otherwise equal qualifications who have non-Muslim names.

I understand that the government is slowly moving forward with “name blind” recruitment for government positions.

I believe that we should go much further and mandate “name blind” recruitment for all employment situations. Of itself, this would not eliminate the risk of discrimination when a Muslim candidate walks into the interview room, but it should eliminate (or dramatically reduce) the scope for discrimination earlier in the recruitment process.

It is equivalent to banning employers from asking candidates questions on the application form about their age or about whether they are planning to have a baby in the near future.

Forcing through such a policy may be unpopular with some. However, as with David Cameron’s legislation for equal civil marriage, pushing through such a policy change can be totemic, creating overnight recognition of how the Conservative Party has changed. In my view the government should give this maximum priority, and if implemented it would dramatically change the way that British Muslim voters see the Party.

What policies can the Conservative Party put forward that will particularly appeal to British Muslims?

When speaking to a Muslim voter, if I can be confident that he will not die from shock or be provoked into attacking me, I sometimes reply that “The Conservative Party is going to do nothing for British Muslims.

This is a slightly provocative way of making the point that British Muslims are citizens like every other Briton. Apart from a few policy areas discussed below, they have the same policy needs as all other Britons: sensible economic policies, sensible taxation policies, sensible education policies, sensible health policies etc.

There are very few issues that can genuinely be described as “Muslim issues.” One is the freedom to practice religious slaughter. David Cameron was uncompromising on this and said when he attended The Muslim News Awards “Halal slaughter is safe as long as I am Prime Minister.

This did not really distinguish us from the Labour Party since Ed Miliband was equally adamant about the freedom to practice halal slaughter. However, I am not aware of Jeremy Corbyn having given the same commitment.

As explained above, forcing “name blind” recruitment processes upon all employers would be an example of a policy that dramatically appealed to British Muslims.

How can we counter the electoral appeal to Muslims of Jeremy Corbyn’s stances on issues such as Iraq and Palestine?

Muslims are undeniably very interested in certain foreign policy issues.

On Iraq, although Jeremy Corbyn opposed the 2003 invasion, it is worth reminding voters that it was a Labour government that invaded Iraq. Sadly, of course, the Conservative Party was fully supportive of the invasion.

Palestine is a more challenging issue for the Conservative Party.

The shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornbury has stated that a future Labour government will recognise the state of Palestine, albeit as a state whose territory is presently occupied by another state, namely Israel. This policy will have major appeal to many British Muslims and give them a further reason for voting Labour rather than Conservative.

Having said that, foreign policy is always made by the government in the national interest. Sometimes, such a policy may well be electorally damaging, and we must be realistic in understanding that.

How important is Shariah law to the average British Muslim?

This question illustrates the importance of being precise about one’s vocabulary, and the problems that can arise from imprecision.

Many non-Muslims (and some Muslims) use the word “Shariah” as if it meant traditional Islamic law. That is inaccurate and the correct aim for Islamic law is “fiqh.”

The word “Shariah” is more accurately understood as representing all of the doctrines of Islam. The original meaning of the word “Shariah” is the path to water [at an oasis] and it is used therefore by Muslim scholars as the path to salvation.

Accordingly, as a politician you may state that you are against "Shariah" intending to mean that you are against the imposition of such punishments as cutting off of the hand of a thief. However, you will be understood by your Muslim interlocutor as stating that you are against Islam, since criticism of "Shariah" (the path to salvation) is the same as criticism of Islam.

That is why I stress the importance of learning about Islam since it will prevent stumbling into such mistakes.

What can we do about the many mosques who make it difficult for Conservatives to engage with their congregants?

The reality on the ground is that most of the members of most management committees tend to be supporters of the Labour Party. Accordingly, they are quite generous at providing facilities at the mosque for Labour Party candidates and for Labour Party councillors to hold councillors’ surgeries etc.

Mosques are almost always charities and as such have an obligation to be neutral between political parties. Accordingly, where they provide facilities to representatives of one political party, such as the Labour Party, they need to be equally willing to provide facilities to other political parties on the same terms, such as the Conservative Party.

If the mosque organising committee is failing to provide by that principle, local conservatives should start a dialogue with them. If necessary, they may need to remind the mosque committee of their obligations under charity law and that the Charity Commission as a regulator would be most concerned by clear evidence of a mosque showing partisan ship between political parties.

It is also helpful to remind mosque committees and other similar organisations that political power and government in Britain tends to alternate between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Accordingly, from a purely practical perspective, it is desirable for Muslim organisations to have good relations with both political parties rather than “putting all their eggs in one basket.

Can you give an example of why Conservatives need to understand Muslim theological differences?

It is essential for Conservatives to be able to appeal to Muslim voters across the entire Islamic theological spectrum. Furthermore, Conservatives should avoid finding themselves being drawn into theological arguments between different groups of British Muslims.

However, it is vitally important is to be aware of such differences to avoid inadvertently “putting one’s foot in it!

For example, a Conservative candidate may be visiting a mosque which is part of the Deobandi movement. The candidate needs to be aware that mentioning a successful visit the previous week to an Ahmadiyya Muslim mosque will go down very badly. The candidate needs to be aware how different Muslim groups see each other. Hence the need for much greater knowledge about Islam and Muslims.


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