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Mark Field MP: Some urgent lessons from Ealing Southall

Mark_field_2 Mark Field is MP for Cities of London and Westminster.

The Conservatives under David Cameron have made tremendous progress to encourage and engage our Party members in community cohesion projects across the UK.

However I believe that our by-election campaign in Ealing Southall may have done lasting damage to the Party’s outreach work in the British Asian Communities.

For a start I fail to understand why MPs such as Dominic Grieve and Paul Goodman whose constituencies are within ten miles or so of Ealing Southall and who have worked enthusiastically with their local Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities over many years, building trust and support, were not brought in to advise on the  strategy of this campaign.   

The centralised imposition of a Sikh candidate, who first became associated with the Party ten days before the by-election was called and whose most recent political activity had been attendance at a Labour Party fundraiser in mid-June, always had the makings of a fiasco.  The way in the sensitivities of local Tory activists were bypassed amounted to contempt towards our supporters and the electorate at large. Building trust and support amongst ethnic groups can never be a quick fix - it has to the culmination of consistent work and commitment.

This potential calamity was clearly spelt out by local folk as soon as the normal candidate selection process was discarded in favour of CCHQ adopting the photogenic son of a prominent local businessman with no previous links to the Party. Our  consequent  attempts to woo the Sikh vote in Southall by exploiting divisions which have wracked the local Sikh and Hindu communities for decades also struck many as blatant opportunism. This warning was conveyed privately to many senior members of the Conservative Party  as the campaign progressed but it was apparently ignored.

To many neutral observers these actions betrayed a failure by our Party to treat sensitively the potentially explosive racial divisions within Ealing Southall. For sure the defection of five local Labour councillors, all Sikhs and  whose ringleader was someone who only days before had failed to secure the Labour nomination for the by-election, made for good headlines at the start of the campaign. However, it became increasingly evident that the Conservatives had been manipulated by this dissident group, who were misleadingly presented  to the public as having defected on ideological grounds.

Worse still these self styled community leaders failed to deliver much more than a block vote of five. As a result, in spite of a frenetic and energetic PR campaign, our vote effectively flatlined at 22.5% - and this in a seat where in the 50 years to 1997 the Conservative share of the vote never dipped below 30%.

As the national political bandwagon moves on from west London my sympathies lie with the dedicated local Conservative association and our ruling Group on Ealing Council who are now left with the unenviable task of sorting out a divided and demoralised local Conservative force. They won control of the council last year and  I know from my time working  with Ealing's Conservative activists that over many years they have worked tirelessly to build relations with local ethnic communities. Much of this effort now lies in tatters.

From my own experience as an inner London MP over the past six years working alongside a sizeable Chinese and Bangladeshi population, I know that there is no substitute for respectful and patient work alongside British Asian communities to promote harmony and understanding.  Even in the highly pressurised atmosphere of a by-election we had a wonderful opportunity over the past three weeks to show the country at large that modern Conservatism embraces these values.


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