The Telegraph: If it means you have a short but productive life, that is worth doing, Sayeeda Warsi interview
Published in The Telegraph, Saturday 5th March 2011
By Robert Winnett, Deputy Political Editor
Ever since Baroness Warsi was appointed Britain’s first Muslim Cabinet minister she has faced serious threats from Islamic extremists.
The role has made her one of the most high-profile targets in politics — so much so that her family has urged her to step away from the limelight.
But the co-chairman of the Conservative Party, who is 40 later this month, said she believed the cause was too important.
Her rise from a working class childhood to the highest echelons of the Tory party is said to play well with Thatcherite root-and-branch members.
She is aware that for many people she represents the “aspirational, working-class opportunity”.
The baroness said: “I spoke to a girl only about six months ago who said her brother and father were asking her to stand as a councillor.
“She was quite shocked because she never thought this was what her family would ask her to do. ‘Oh we want you to do that because look how well Sayeeda Warsi has done.’ So it has now become an aspirational thing.”
Such conversations — and the threats she has received — have led to her thinking long and hard about the risks she is taking.
But she concluded: “Why go into politics if you are not going to be brave? If you want to stand on the sidelines and not stand up for what you believe in, politics is the wrong game to be in.
“If that means you have a short but productive life, that is worth doing.”
Last month, she stirred controversy after claiming that prejudice against Muslims in this country had “passed the dinner table test” and was now seen as socially acceptable. The remarks caused her to be criticised amid suggestions that she had angered the Prime Minister.
So, is the woman apparently prepared to die for her work, now shying away from further controversy or might she make another speech about religion? “Despite what you might read in the great newspapers, David [Cameron] is quite keen for me to do another one.”
The fighting attitude may prove crucial in what she believes will be a dismal few years for the Tories.
The baroness is doing all she can to rally the party. She arrives in Cardiff today for the Conservative spring conference having travelled via Yorkshire, Scotland and London over the past 48 hours.
Baroness Warsi is resigned to several years of electoral meltdowns before her job becomes easier – hopefully in time for the next general election in 2015.
Thursday’s by-election, in which the Tories were beaten into third place in Barnsley by Ukip, was another reminder of the scale of the task before her.
“We will do badly in the local elections and Labour should do very well because of where we are in the electoral cycle,” Baroness Warsi said.
Conservative strategists are privately forecasting that Ed Miliband will recapture at least 1,000 council seats this May, although the baroness refuses to be drawn on figures. However, she said the party was not experiencing any “honeymoon” from being in power.
“We had no honeymoon to walk into,” she said. “They left us with a huge mess … you are not going to be popular. But we did not form this Coalition in the interests of being popular – well, neither of the parties did that – we formed this Coalition to clear up the mess – to act in the national interest.”
Baroness Warsi said the party’s success or failure at the next election would be entirely reliant on the performance of the economy.
“Everything else that we deliver has to be delivered alongside a more balanced and stable economy,” she said. “If we deliver that more balanced and stable economy before the next election then that is a record that we will go on and that is what we are all working towards.”
But, in the coming weeks, the Tory chairman has a more pressing priority — to stop a change in the voting system.
On May 5, there will be a referendum on switching from a first-past-the-post electoral system to the alternative vote in which candidates are ranked.
There is widespread apathy towards the referendum and the Conservatives are growing increasingly alarmed. If the system changes, Mr Cameron may find himself – and his successors – never able to win a general election outright.
Baroness Warsi has the task of trying to increase public awareness towards the “threat”.
She said: “I think it would be a disaster for good, strong democratic elections in this country.
“That’s the one [poll] I am concentrating on and saying to my colleagues up and down the country – that’s what we should be focusing on. Now is the time to get passionate to avoid apathetic politics for ever.”
The Conservatives are clearly rattled by celebrities such as Colin Firth, the recent Oscar winner, who are lining up behind the campaign in support of electoral reform.
She said: “If you can get some stars like Colin Firth and others to add a bit of stardust to it, yes it might sound sexy or it might sound exciting and it might sound like change, but once you start going through the arguments of what it is – people very quickly switch to ‘no’.”
“This situation is far too serious for it to be about razzmatazz.
“I mean if people said to me, ‘would you want to go and do the same razzmatazz?’, I would actually say this is more than about the stardust. This is actually about the fundamental values of our country.”