Letwin is a dinosaur, but racism still lurks in British politics

You wait for years for a Conservative party race row and then two come along at once. Today's papers carry two separate stories regarding alleged racism and Islamophobia in the party.

On the face of it, the comments made by David Cameron's policy chief Oliver Letwin are by far the most serious. New papers unearthed under the thirty year rule reveal advice given by Letwin to the then Thatcher government arguing that employment programmes aimed at black communities would merely boost the "disco and drug trade" and "subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops".

The story is particularly unwelcome for David Cameron, because it reinforces views of the party he has worked hard to dispel. Yet in some ways it merely serves to demonstrate how far British politics has come since 1985. Back then, senior Tories still had close ties with the racist Monday Club and Letwin's comments about the "bad morals" of black rioters would not have seemed well outside of the mainstream of Conservative thought.

However, it is now impossible to imagine a Tory adviser, even a dinosaur like Letwin, ever putting such bigoted views down in print. As far as such views still exist within the Conservative party, they exist unspoken, or at the very least unwritten. Thanks largely to Cameron, the Tories now also have a significant bloc of ethnic minority MPs. Britain's demographics have shifted dramatically in the last thirty years and the Conservative party is slowly catching up with that fact.

But while it's difficult to imagine such bigoted views about black people persisting at the highest levels of British politics, it appears that prejudiced views about another minority in the UK are still alive and well.

The Guardian today reports allegations that a canvasser, working for Conservative London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, referred to Goldsmith's rival Sadiq Khan, as "the Muslim".

Goldsmith's camp immediately sought to distance themselves from the comments and have launched an investigation to find the individual concerned.

Yet the comments come after Goldsmith's campaign have been accused of "dog-whistle" tactics and "coded racist attacks" against Khan. Recently a branch of Goldsmith's campaign named "Sadiq Watch" released material claiming that it was "not clear where Sadiq Khan really stands" on extremism. Followers on the Conservative's Facebook page subsequently left dozens of racist and Islamophobic comments under posts about Sadiq.

Among the comments were calls for Sadiq, who is a practicing Muslim, to be sent bacon, claims he had called for the Islamic flag to be flown over Downing Street, and allegations that he is planning postal vote fraud.

"If Khan/Corbyn get in you can expect another 50 mosques in London, more extremists, no thank you there's too many already. Vote in the Tory candidate," was one fairly typical response.

Now there is absolutely no reason to believe that either Goldsmith or any of the people working for him are Islamophobes. Goldsmith is an intelligent and open-minded man and it is impossible to imagine he would ever encourage such comments, either by his canvassers or his supporters.

And yet when Politics.co.uk highlighted these Facebook comments earlier this month, rather than deleting the comments, Zac's campaign instead contacted me with a screengrab of comments apparently left by followers on Sadiq's Facebook page referring to "Zionist Jews" in Israel. Asked whether they planned to delete any of the Islamophobic comments on their page, Zac's press office declined to reply, although a few do seem to have disappeared subsequently.

Goldsmith, who has himself been the victim of anti-Semitic abuse online, is understandably sensitive to allegations of bigotry. It's also clear that any more explicit attempts by the Conservatives to play on fears about Sadiq's 'trustworthiness' on Islamic terrorism would backfire spectacularly. 

And yet while Letwin's comments show how far we have moved in the past 30 years, it's clear that bigotry against Muslims is still prevalent. When Ukip came a distant second to Labour in Oldham West earlier this month, their leader Nigel Farage immediately came out with a series of comments suggesting Muslims in the area had stolen the election for Labour. Even in a relatively enlightened city like London, these ugly views still persist. A controversial poll, conducted by YouGov earlier this year, found that a third of Londoners would be "uncomfortable if the next London mayor was a Muslim". Recent events in Paris and London will have hardened these attitudes.

British politics has travelled a long way since the days when Letwin's comments would have been deemed acceptable. But after a period in which racial and religious politics has been largely absent from mainstream British politics, the battle between Khan and Goldsmith looks set to inflame some rather ugly wounds.