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The Tories’ Prodigal Son

Chandila FernandoOBV Blog speaks to Chandila Fernando, who resigned from the Conservatives in 2003 over race and immigration, but has rejoined under David Cameron

By Lester Holloway in Manchester

Chandila Fernando left the Conservative Party led by Michael Howard over their stance on race and immigration and joined the Liberal Democrats. Six years later, and having fought an unsuccessful campaign to be Lib Dem party president last year, he rejoined the Tories, along with his sister, Chamali.

The defections caused considerable anger among Lib Dems grassroots activists. The pair, who hail from a staunchly Liberal family, were the most high profile loss Nick Clegg’s party has endured over the last year.

So what was it that attracted Chandila to rejoin David Cameron’s Conservatives?

We caught up with Chandila at the Tory conference in Manchester, to ask him what was different about the Conservatives of 2003 that he left, to the party he rejoined in 2008.

OBV Blog: You’re in a fairly unique position to judge how the Conservative Party has changed. Having been a Conservative, you joined the Lib Dems, and recently defected back to the Conservatives. So how has the party changed, from the party you left, to the Tories today?

Chandila: There are several things. One, that appeals to me most now, there is a realisation that Britain, as a whole, has changed. The party is genuinely conscious to look like modern Britain as is fittingly possible. As you’ve rightly said, I’ve been here before, and having [also] spent time with [the Lib Dems] there is, within any party, a problem with people understanding something that is fundamentally different. It can be ignorance or a lack of awareness. And in some cases, it can be a form of prejudice.

The Conservative Party today, they have absolutely every will to do something about it. It’s not perfect, but they are committed. They opened up the candidates list and said that anybody could do it. I’ve been approved [as a potential candidate]. So there isn’t the mystique [that exists] in other political parties, where it’s hard to know who to go to. There is a greater level of transparency here.

OBV Blog: It’s clear the make-up of the party is changing for the better, but do you think that message is getting through to the electorate?

Chandila: More generally, I think the Conservative Party has understood the need to articulate their point very simply, the fact that we have a broken society and a broken economy. We’re positioned with the ideas to do something about it.

In terms of ethnic minorities, the fact that there are more ethnic minority people here. Ordinary ethnic minority households have started to warm to David Cameron. He has a certain charisma about him; he has genuine appeal, and people have begun to see that. And whatever he has to do [in government] they genuinely believe that he will do it in the best interests of the country. That’s what people are saying to us.

OBV Blog: While the Conservatives have selected a few Black and ethnic minority candidates, the media in particular still raises questions about how far the party has really come. Are the media now dealing in outdated stereotypes of your party?

Chandila: Well, we haven’t had an Obama-style moment. You see it’s very difficult, with the best will in the world, for David Cameron to tell someone the party has become a completely changed product. The only way you can do that is if you have more MPs from different backgrounds and ultimately if MPs are in positions of authority, like the Cabinet or shadow cabinet. Until you get that, that is, if you like, the ultimate consumer test, [for] people to have total buy-in to what we’ve achieved. Fundamentally I think its always going to be there because of the history of theConservative Party are such that it is a very old established institution, with rules and conventions.

OBV Blog: So are you saying elements of the Conservative Party are out of date?

Chandila: I don’t think it’s out of date. I think it’s the fact that, when you have a lot of history with you don’t immediately jettison or dispense with it because that makes part of your story. And I think it’s bridging that with what people see today. The new modern, progressive, Conservative Party is a place of opportunity.

OBV Blog: What’s the main differences between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems?

Chandila: I met Linda Jack [Lib Dem MEP] yesterday, and she said “I can see why you came here”. I said, go on, elaborate. She said: “You seem very comfortable, the ideology sits with you, the way they operate, what you want to do.” And in the Liberal Democrats you stood out for the wrong reasons. And she said “you have a sort of clarity, in terms of where the party’s going” which in the Liberal Democrats is hard to find, because you have that constant battle between the centre-left and the centre-right, and then ultimately that doesn’t necessarily produce a very clear message.

Which for someone like me, it’s one of the things that used to go through my mind, because at the end of the day you have someone like Vince Cable who will on the one hand be very positive towards business, but at the same time [they’ll] be quite antagonistic to those who have quite large deposits.

OBV Blog: So how does that tension between the two wings of the Lib Dems then result in a lack of Black representation?

Chandila: Well, I had a go at a top post in the party, party president. The virtue of the Liberal Democrats was the fact that anyone could stand for it. The words ‘could stand for’, and ‘being accepted to stand for’ are very, very different. And I think that is the problem. The Liberal Democrats talk about promoting people from different backgrounds the reality is, very sadly, different.

OBV Blog: So you don’t have any regrets leaving the Lib Dems?

Chandila: I don’t have any animosity towards anyone because, I have to say, I did meet some great people. But at the same time, where I was as a person and where I saw I could do something, that was another matter. Anything else?

OBV Blog: Yes, there was a debate on Lib Dem Voice where there were a number of brickbats lopped at you and your sister. How do you feel about that?

Chandila: Well, in a funny way I was reminded by a very wise and savvy uncle of mine, actually you get to know what people really think about you when you are no longer there. I think that’s one. If someone can wait until Two O’Clock in the morning to write something really nasty, [and] that’s what excites them, I can’t stop them. Nor should I, it’s their democratic right to do so. But I think it’s a bit petty really, because I haven’t changed as a person. I’ve not become this fanged individual going around murdering Liberal Democrats! I’m just a person who’s very passionate about politics and wants to do something. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But also from my standpoint, Liberal Democrats thinking is very inward-looking, “let’s fight the enemy within”.

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3 Responses

  1. Linda Jack is NOT a Conservative MEP – she’s a former Lib Dem MEP candidate, and a member of the Federal Policy Forum

  2. That is absolutely true. Thanks for the post, Meral, going to amend the article now.

    Linda Jack was, however, attending the Conservative Party conference, but as you point out she’s a Liberal Democrat!

  3. However if Chandila’s recounting of his conversation with Linda is accurate, quite why she’d be effectively telling him he was right to join the Tories is a whole ‘nother question!

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