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Parvez Akhtar: In defence of Sayeeda Warsi

AkhtarParvezParvez Akhtar is Conservative Policy Forum coordinator in the Eastern region.

Much has been written in recent days about the controversy surrounding Baroness Warsi and while I agree with Tim Montgomerie that accusations of racism in the left wing media are simply ludicrous; but as a Conservative I don’t think there has been enough coverage of the part Sayeeda Warsi has and I hope will continue to play in broadening the appeal of the Tory Party to non-traditional voters.

In a piece for the Daily Telegraph, Paul Goodmanl noted David Cameron needed a way to reach out to this growing part of the electorate, and in Lady Warsi found a way of doing just that. However as Lord Ashcroft’s recent research has shown we still have some way to go because only 16% voted Conservative in 2010 general election.

I would argue that this would have been even lower had it not been for Lady Warsi. Her reach has not only extended to ethnic voters but also to many others who thought we were not for people like them, were hostile to them and did not share their values. I am sure they were pleasantly surprised to see a working class muslim woman from Yorkshire tackle equally well extremists on the streets of Luton as in the BBC Question Time studio.   

Lord Ashcroft’s research has shown that the perceptions of the Conservative Party are the main barriers to support from voters.  Breaking down these perceptions is key, and in Lady Warsi we have someone who is able to do that. By and large and unlike Labour we have not made the mistake of favouring ethnic groups with special treatment but rather have engaged each of the different groups on the basis of shared values.

This is the first reason for Lady Warsi’s difficulties because it was her unwillingness to accomodate the Conservative Arab Network which prompted the expenses accusations. The second reason is that the the engagement and outreach she has performed had deliberately been international in nature (as noted here) and she has accepted that it was a mistake to take a business associate with her. I am sure the trip was carried out with the best of intentions but one which she will undoubtedly learn lessons from.

Her critics argue she is not an effective Party Co-Chairman, but none question her ability to raise issues some Tories find difficult to speak about. She routinely makes appearances at festivals, functions, dinners, fundraisers, political rallies, religious gatherings, and has a long history of leading national and international social action projects. The aim at all times to break down the perceptions of the party and show that our party and many Conservatives who make up our party are in fact ordinary men and women driven by a shared conservative agenda and not ethnicity, class or background.

It is these shared values which have formed the basis of attracting new voters and this is something I have witnessed first-hand. I am convinced that many people have been won over by her willingness to tackle, in a no nonsense northern way, issues like forced marriage, Islamophobia, extremism and recently, grooming.

In a gathering in Birmingham I saw her outnumbered by wannabe Labour mayoral candidates (including ex ministers) and yet with an eloquent command of two languages won over the audience with her message on the perils of debt, the importance of family, low taxation and community empowerment. After her performance, no one remembered how many Labour politicians spoke let alone what they said. That is why Labour is desperate to get rid of her because more than any other Conservative politician (including the many outstanding new MP’s) she is challenging the Labour myth that they are the party of choice for ethnic minority voters.

The grass roots campaign that Labour has built up over many years, including councillors and activists who are known locally and have worked in the community for many years, needs to be fought, and this will be a lot easier with Lady Warsi than without. Her ethnicity and background is important, but the approach she uses and the fearless manner in which she speaks out about issues irrespective of whom she upsets, is even more valuable. A hard-won acceptance now enables her to speak with credibility and Lady Warsi realises that in order for us to be successful in a dozen key urban marginal seats in 2015 she needs to be the focal point of the campaign in those seats. Labour knows it needs to stop her and are using the recent controversy to help them. The question is: how much will we aid them?


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