If Lady Warsi is hounded out, it will be a loss to British politics
It will be a sad day for British politics if Conservative party chair Sayeeda Warsi is hounded out of office. The party is experiencing its worst slump in the polls since coming to power and within her own party many are making Warsi the scapegoat. There is barely a week that goes by without someone, usually a Tory, calling for her head. This time Labour has seized upon her present plight, over alleged flaws in her expenses claims, and called for her to step down.
A fair assessment of whether or not she wilfully broke the rules will come to light soon. But what is often lost in this relentless pursuit by some who want Warsi gone is what she has brought to British politics in the last decade and more. In a few weeks, we will celebrate 25 years since the four black and Asian Labour MPs – Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz and Paul Botang – came into parliament. A quarter of a century on, Warsi is the only minority-ethnic politician in government.
I've known her for more than 15 years. In 1996 she helped us establish Operation Black Vote in the north. Our goal was to encourage minority communities to engage in civic society, and use the democratic process to ensure greater social and racial equality. Her passion for these goals and empowering women, particularly Asian women, was infectious.
She bellowed at the men: "This is not back home, where women are seen but not heard. Here our mothers, sisters and daughters must be allowed the wonderful opportunity to fulfil their great potential." She then turned to the women among the audience: "I know this is often difficult for you, but the stronger you are, the better our community, our society will be." Even back then Warsi wasn't just a firebrand making rousing speeches; she backed up her rhetoric as a human rights lawyer and activist, helping many, including women escaping from abusive marriages. It was no surprise to me that political bosses from all sides of the spectrum beat a path to her door in a bid to get this talented woman on their side.
It is important to note that when a black or Asian person enters into formal politics, unlike other politicians, they are faced with an almost impossible balancing act, which most get wrong. They have a choice to be a multifaceted MP with views on a whole range of issues, such the economy, education, housing, health, at the expense of talking about race or a particular religion; or to be a one-dimensional politician who is rarely seen outside the paradigm of race or religion. Most minority politicians choose the former, which is akin to female politicians never talking about gender inequality. As the most senior minority-ethnic politician in Britain, Warsi has bravely straddled both worlds in a way that is barely acknowledged, much less appreciated.
For example, when some UK Christians felt under threat, Warsi – a devout Muslim – declared that this was a Christian nation, and she was proud of its values. But she is also strong enough to stand up for her own faith, lamenting that "middle class Islamophobia" was becoming the norm.
On the international stage, she is an example of progressive Britain, looking for opportunities to open up trade links with the emerging markets such as India, Pakistan and China. On the domestic front Warsi, along with Theresa May and Dominic Grieve, has been central in transforming her own parliamentary party – from being all white when she joined, to its 12 minority MPs today. The 2010 election saw the greatest ever increase in minority MP numbers.
Ultimately, David Cameron may capitulate to Warsi's detractors; but if she is hounded out of office, where will the progressive voice in so many difficult areas come from? Not from the Conservative males who are doing the hounding, that's for sure.