THE religion of candidates has “no bearing” on how people will vote during the London mayoral elections, Conservative hopeful Syed Kamall has said.
The Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for London is currently a contender to be Tory candidate for the job of running the capital.
In an exclusive interview to Eastern Eye last week, Kamall said he hoped to show people that no matter where candidates come from, “there is no limit to what you can achieve”.
Kamall, 48, said an LBC poll last month by YouGov, which revealed only 55 per cent would be comfortable with a Muslim mayor, while 31 per cent would be uncomfortable, was “very odd”.
“The questions you have to ask is, ‘if I say Muslim, what do you think of?’ Had they said ‘would you vote for Syed Kamall or Sadiq Khan’, I think you would have had a different result. When you say ‘Muslim’, people have different views. Some of them might think of their mates who are Muslim, some of them might think of leading politicians. Some of them might think of Osama bin Laden.
“You have to work out what’s on their mind when they think about a Muslim. It has no real bearing on how people are going to vote.”
Kamall, who comes from a different background to his main rival, the Eton-educated Zac Goldsmith, has a backstory similar to other leading Muslim politicians – business secretary Sajid Javid and prospective Labour candidate for mayor Sadiq Khan – in that he is also the son of a bus driver.
“It’s becoming a bit of a cliché or trend,” he joked.
His father came to Britain in the 1950s from Guyana and worked on the railways before he switched to driving buses.
“One reason I’m here today is because both my parents told me, there’s no limit to what you can achieve as long as you believe in yourself and work hard,” Kamall said.
He added: “At the time, kids from my community said to me, ‘you can’t achieve anything here, because of our colour, because we’re working-class kids’.
“One person recently said ‘I can’t achieve anything because I’m Muslim in this country, it’s all against us’.
“I want to show people that’s not true. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you believe in yourself and work hard, believe in God, there no limit to what you can achieve.”
Kamall is not worried that Goldsmith has become the early favourite. Bookmakers place him second behind the Richmond MP who is at at 1/10, compared to Kamall on 7/1 .
“I think I symbolise modern London. I think I can reach out to the whole of my party to say that actually I can be mayor for the whole of London. I know my support is much higher among members of the Conservative party than the polls are showing.”
Before Kamall entered politics, he worked as a consultant to companies on marketing, strategy and public affairs. He also ran a diversity recruitment business. In his political career, he has steadily risen through the ranks to become one of the most senior elected British politicians in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union (EU).
Kamall became an MEP in 2005 and in 2013, he was elected the leader of the Conservative MEPs. Last year, he became chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament.
“I am the leader of the third largest group in the European Parliament. I lead a group of 74 MEPs from 16 countries. That’s a huge responsibility,” he said.
On the referendum – which will take place by the end of 2017 and give Britons the chance to decide whether or not to remain a member of the EU – Kamall’s stance is quite clear.
“I would probably personally vote to leave because I’ve been an MEP for over 10 years and there is a completely different view of Europe in Britain and when I’m in Brussels.
“People in Britain feel they have voted to join a common market, a free trade area. In Brussells, however, I am surrounded by people who talk openly about the United States of Europe, talk about Federal Republic of Europe, talk about creating a country called Europe.”
He said being a member of the EU was like having a “racist immigration policy”.
“Countries with whom we’ve got historic links like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, our relatives and friends who want to come from those countries now have to get a visa, even though we have been here for some time and have these historic links. Someone who has no link with Britain from an EU country can just walk in. That doesn’t seem fair to me.”
Kamall believes an EU membership for Britain will only be supported if David Cameron manages to persuade European leaders to make some changes.
“I’m waiting for his reforms, I’ve told him that,” said Kamall.
“If he can get more power back for national parliaments, then I think there will be more support,” he added. “Why should Europe decide our employments laws? Let Britain decide that. If he can get some of those reforms, then actually I’ll vote to stay.”
Asked for his views on preventing radicalisation in London and the country as whole, Kamall said there was no “silver bullet to tackle the problem”.
Terror-related arrests in England, Wales and Scotland reached record levels last year, when 338 people were held, according to the Metropolitan Police.
“It has to be done at all sorts of levels. On the face of the crime, you need police and law enforcement to deal with it.
“But what is really causing some of our young people to become radicalised? I think we have to be very careful in saying that governments have got that solution.
He added that there were some “great local anti-extremism projects” that are doing the groundwork.
“These are run sometimes by people who themselves have been former extremists and want to prevent people from going down that path. I haven’t seen enough recognition from any party to say this guy has got a fantastic project and actually who can we replicate that.
“The problem happens very locally and people say afterwards ‘I knew that was happening’. Or actually ‘it was a complete shock’. One parent blamed the government for his children going abroad.
“We got to take responsibility ourselves. It’s difficult being a parent – I have two young boys and you teach them about Islam growing up, and you hope that one day someone doesn’t corrupt that vision of Islam. We’ve got to be ever watchful.”
Talking about the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis, Kamall says he is “not ashamed” of the government’s response, after prime minister David Cameron was criticised for being morally wrong on the issue.
Last week, the photograph of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on Bodrum beach in Turkey shocked the world into action. The Syrian toddler was one of more than 2,600 refugees who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean since January.
Bowing to public opinion, Cameron announced on Monday (7) that the UK will accept up to 20,000 refugees from camps surrounding Syria over a period of five years.
“I’m not ashamed because we’ve been arguing for realism and pragmatism,” Kamall told Eastern Eye.
“We see theses picture of a young boy and people in boats falling into the sea. My heart says, let in anyone who wants to come. But if we did, we know as politicians and people living here the tension it would cause. We’ve already got a housing crisis in London.
“We can’t do the other extreme – the Australian or the Israeli solution – which is to let no one in. What we’ve got to do find a sensible solution, to make sure we are not letting vulnerable people fall into the arms of traffickers.”
He added that the governments needed to get together and set up processing camps for the refugees.
“Anyone who wants to come and anyone who wants to flee persecution, they have to go to one of these processing camps. Then we have to make sure that we rapidly process people as quickly as possible. We have to distinguish those who are genuinely fleeing persecution and not just trying to come here for a better life.”
Kamall said there were facial recognition and accent experts to tell refugees from Syria apart from economic migrants from other places.
“It doesn’t matter how much Arabic I learn, people know I’m not from an Arab country. We only want those who are genuine.”