Imtiaz Ameen is a practising solicitor and former councillor in Dewsbury. He was a Parliamentary candidate in the 2005 and 2015 general elections.
Before polling day, Peter Oborne wrote that “‘the ruling Conservative Party has abandoned and turned its back on Muslim voters”.
His central premise was that the Party neither had policies which appealed to Muslims, nor made any effort in selecting Muslim candidates to stand in safe seats.
He claimed that he had been unable to identify a single Muslim even placed on a shortlist for a safe seat and specifically expressed concern that Syed Kamall, an excellent and long-standing MEP, had been unable to secure a seat. Oborne could have gone further. From the exclusive rolling information on candidate selections provided by Mark Wallace, I do not recall a single Muslim candidate shortlisted even for a marginal seat.
I should at this juncture declare a personal interest: I was not put back on the candidates list after standing in Batley and Spen at the 2015 election. Nevertheless the lack of Muslim candidates at this election was glaringly obvious.
Many of us on the candidates list have previously raised our concerns at what was perceived to be a lack of a level playing field when applying for seats, but the answer was always the same: that it was Associations that selected and not much more could be done from the centre.
However, at this election an opportunity presented itself as it was CCHQ which selected candidates and imposed shortlists on Associations. This was a chance for the Party to do something different – but unfortunately there was no progress. That the Party felt it could not offer a single Muslim candidate who could be put forward to stand in a decent seat is as damning as it is remarkable.
This is important because of the message that the Party is deemed to have sent to a large and often significant group of voters. In West Yorkshire in seats such as Dewsbury, Colne Valley, Wakefield, Halifax, and Batley and Spen, the number of Muslim voters far exceeds the size of the majority. All five seats were lost at this election.
In my home town seat of Dewsbury I detected at this election a very prevalent anti-Conservative mood among Muslims which I had not previously encountered. Having talked to many Muslim voters there wasn’t one reason only for this anger; but the language relating to Brexit, immigration, and terrorism and security during and before the campaign was regularly cited as a reason to not vote Conservative.
As someone who voted leave, I believed Brexit to be about a brighter future: new trade deals with India, China, and Brazil and an outward-looking, expansionist, and global Britain. Instead we turned Brexit into a dour, colourless, fear-mongering anti-immigration campaign devoid of any hope or aspiration. It was akin to the 2005 election slogan of ‘it’s not racist to talk about immigration.’
When this type of Brexit became central to the campaign the appeal of the Conservatives as the party of hope and aspiration disappeared, along with any mention of the economy.
Against the backdrop of a lack of Muslim candidates, a lack of attractive manifesto pledges, and an unattractive campaign, I was particularly interested in observing how Muslims in the area where I live, which has a 98 per cent Muslim electorate, would vote.
I talked to many voters outside the polling station and found hardly anyone voting Conservative, including those who had voted for us previously, with the language surrounding Brexit and immigration being the reason most cited. For example, a prominent local businessman and a regular Conservative voter said that he’d simply had enough of this constant talk of immigration and would not be voting Conservative this time.
Indeed, as far as immigration was concerned even I said to a friend during the campaign that I hoped one day the Party leadership would stop obsessing about immigration and realise that people like me don’t feel overjoyed at constantly hearing that immigrants like my parents, who made huge sacrifices for us to have a better future, would not be welcome here today under a Conservative Government.
After spending several hours outside the polling station and observing a very high turnout (around 85 per cennt), I wasn’t confident that we had gained even five per cent of the votes, which is the worst I can recall – bearing in mind that a few years ago this area helped to elect three Conservative councillors. I estimate the total number of Muslim votes cast in Dewsbury was 11,500 and I very much doubt we gained anywhere near ten per cent of this vote.
If this is a pattern repeated elsewhere, and anecdotal evidence suggests it was, then in dozens of marginal seats with large numbers of Muslim voters, Conservative candidates were hamstrung and faced inevitable defeat no matter how well they ran their campaigns. Some suggest there were 33 marginal seats that were influenced by the Muslim vote, but there are considerably more seats where this vote could have a significant impact.
Dewsbury was won by Labour, which doubled its majority to 3321 votes, and even a small increase in our share of the Muslim vote could have changed the result. We are however nowhere near securing the additional vote needed to help overturn these majorities. Theresa May, having previously shown all the signs of understanding this problem, ran a campaign which alienated Muslim voters more than ever before.
Shortly after the election was called, and when we were considerably ahead in the polls, I predicted a hung parliament or a very narrow Conservative majority. I felt a 50 seat majority was wishful thinking let alone 100-plus. My fellow Conservatives and friends openly mocked and laughed at my prediction, but for me it was very clear that UKIP voters were primarily protest voters and were not all going to return doing cartwheels to us.
But more importantly, many of our top target seats had a significant number of Muslim voters who I felt would be put off by the Conservative Party’s election pitch, and would mean that Labour would not only shore up this vote but increase it, which in the end is what happened.
Unfortunately the detoxification which started under David Cameron, which encouraged Muslims to look seriously at our Party as a natural home, has more or less been reversed and, quite bizarrely, under May we ended up behaving at this election like the ‘nasty party’.
If the identity of our Party becomes that which is unwelcoming or unattractive to Muslims, then we need to be prepared for the perpetual loss of these seats, with gaining a sizeable majority consigned to wishful thinking.
There are a number of things that the Party can do besides, sending one leaflet every four years and arranging Eid parties and thinking that it is actively engaging with Muslims, but the question is whether the Party leadership wants or is prepared to do anything differently, or whether it is simply going to give up on Muslims like it did at this election and risk alienating even lifelong Conservatives like me.