London (CNSNews.com) - A political row has erupted in Britain over calls for lawmakers to sign an anti-racism pledge ahead of the general election, with several members of the Conservative Party publicly refusing to do so.
The party's finance spokesman, Michael Portillo, on Friday became its most senior member to say he would not sign a declaration drawn up by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), a statutory body drawn up under race relations legislation.
The code of conduct commits politicians not to use racist language during the campaign. It was signed by the five main party leaders in a joint, high-profile event last month, and each party nominated a senior member to deal with any race-related complaints raised during the campaign against any politician.
The CRE then urged each party to have all of its lawmakers and prospective parliamentary candidates endorse it too. Since then, 269 of 417 Labor lawmakers have done so, as have 55 of the 160 Conservative members of parliament. Of 47 Liberal Democrats, 45 have signed.
While many have yet to sign, three Conservative lawmakers have in recent days explicitly said they will not do so, prompting calls by Labor for William Hague to discipline or even expel them.
While Hague has resisted the calls, the addition to their ranks of Portillo on Friday, a senior member of the shadow cabinet who has been tipped as future contender for party leadership, has upped the stakes.
Portillo said Hague had already endorsed the CRE document on behalf of the party. He did not like having "bits of paper and questionnaires thrust in front of me."
"I haven't signed it," he said when asked by reporters, "because I speak for myself and I have said that I offer equality of esteem to everyone in this country."
Another lawmaker announced shortly soon after Portillo's comments that she, too, would not be signing. Other Conservatives have expressed sympathy with those refusing to sign, questioning the need to endorse pledges from pressure groups.
Hague will now find himself under growing pressure to clarify matters, and specifically whether he expects all candidates to endorse the document, or merely to abide by the code of conduct.
The CRE document emphasizes that it is not attempting to restrict political debate, but adds: "The right to free political expression must not be abused in the competition for popular votes by causing or exploiting prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of race or nationality."
Yet critics say endorsing it will stifle important debate about the issue of immigration and asylum-seeking. In parts of the country near ports where ferries arrive from continental Europe, polls have found voters to place these issues among the most pressing for them when choosing political candidates to support.
The CRE on its Internet website is running a tally of MPs who have signed from the various parties, as well as the handful who have refused to do so.
John Gummer, a former Conservative government minister, accused the CRE Friday of using "blackmail" to browbeat lawmakers into signing, for fear of being branded racist.
Gummer - who has not yet signed and has declined to say whether he will - said MPs' duty was to those who lived in their constituencies. As such they should not be prevented from discussing whatever subjects constituents wished to raise.
The CRE denied it was trying to browbeat anyone.
Spokesperson Vicki Kennedy said in a phone interview that although the CRE brokered the anti-racism pledge, it was a compact between the political parties themselves.
Because its drafting had been "an open and transparent process" it followed that whoever signed and did not sign it was a matter "for public consumption," which was why the names were being published on the website.
Kennedy said signing the document was "totally voluntary" as far as the CRE was concerned. It was more concerned that politicians adhered to the anti-racism principles than that they signed a piece of paper.
"We totally respect the right of any individual not to sign up and appreciate there may be a number of reasons why they might not want to do that," she said.
"We certainly will not be labeling anyone racist on the basis that they're not signing up."
On Thursday evening, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook slammed the Conservative Party for attitudes on race, and said Hague was not doing enough to stamp out racism among members.
Hague has been under attack on the issue since a speech he made during the party's spring conference last month, when he said Britain was at risk of becoming a "foreign land" under Prime Minister Tony Blair's leadership.
He has also frequently accused the government of being weak in tackling rising numbers of foreign asylum-seekers trying to get into Britain.
"If William Hague really wants to stamp out racism in his party, he should lead by example," Cook said.
Conservative chairman Michael Ancram called Cook's speech "quite ridiculous" while Hague said it was not racist to raise the legitimate concerns of citizens, especially regarding asylum.