‘Do you think the members of your party are ready to select a brown man, Rishi?’ tweeted barrister Jolyon Maugham as the recently resigned Chancellor launched his leadership campaign.
Rishi Sunak clearly did not think his skin colour would rule him out of Downing Street – since he had declared his candidacy. The tweet was deleted. Maugham later clarified that ‘my point was, I want, we should all want, greater representation of people of colour leading all political parties. But it’s not an issue particular to the Conservative Party’. Though the initial tweet had sounded somewhat more discouraging of Sunak’s leadership ambitions, Maugham said he would himself vote for Sunak in the unlikely parallel universe where he was a Tory party member – though he was clearly deeply sceptical that those who have actually joined the party could see beyond race when voting for a leader. Whether or not ethnic minority candidates can reach the top is a legitimate question – even if this was a clumsy and crass way to ask it. But the only credible answer to ‘can an ethnic minority candidate win?’ is that they obviously could.
No political party in a major western democracy has ever produced a leadership field with anything like the levels of ethnic diversity in the Conservative contest of 2022. The pace of change is extraordinary. A party which had just four non-white MPs in its history before May 2010 now has half a dozen ethnic minority leadership contenders just over a decade later.
This can be celebrated as an advance for meritocracy in British politics – but it is also a more nuanced story than that. David Cameron, who inherited a parliamentary party with one black MP and one Asian MP in 2005, had a transformative impact on the culture in selections. Cameron wanted his party to catch up with Labour, which had 13 of the 15 ethnic minority MPs then – and a 50 point lead among ethnic minority voters too. Significant efforts at cultural change were needed to move closer towards fairer chances for minority candidates in both major parties. A Black or Asian Prime Minister was improbable – to the point of near impossibility – at the turn of the century, and a much less likely prospect as recently as 2015 as it is today.
Today, Labour still has twice as many ethnic minority MPs than the Conservatives. One fifth of the Parliamentary Labour Party – 41 out of 200 – are black, Asian or mixed race. The Conservatives have 21 ethnic minority MPs – 6% of the group. So this unusual majority-minority leadership contest arises because one in three ethnic minority Conservative MPs has declared for the leadership, compared to one in 66 of their white British counterparts. Half of the six ethnic minority Conservative women MPs have declared themselves leadership candidates.
Why did Nadhim Zahawi, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman run as Ben Wallace, Michael Gove and Steve Baker stood back? That disparity in ratios may just be a fluke of the moment, but ethnic minority Conservatives clearly feel they have the vision and voice for these times – while their colleagues appear to support their leadership credentials. Can other parties say the same?
The British public are entirely unfazed by the idea of an ethnic minority Prime Minister. A quarter think it would be actively positive, while the majority say it should not be a consideration. A surly one in ten would be unhappy about the idea. Conservative voters feel the same and a February 2022 YouGov poll of Conservative party members placed Sunak streets ahead on perceived electability. After his bruising six months, whether Sunak is still the answer to the question ‘who can win?’ will be much more hotly contested in this race.
The central question is not whether the Conservatives could elect an ethnic minority leader – they certainly could, though they might not – but what it would mean if they did.
Ethnic diversity across parties – and across factions within them – is what really shows that this has become a ‘new normal’. Those who oppose Conservative politics and policies should challenge ethnic minority Conservatives in just the same way that they would Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson, but desist from ugly language about ‘tokens’ or ‘uncle Toms’ which holds opponents to different standards based on their ethnicity.
The Conservative party needs significant reforms to its internal culture. The persistent fumbling of sexual harassment allegations that finally brought Boris Johnson down shows that, but so does its failure to get to grips with the scale of casual anti-Muslim prejudice in its ranks. This is not just a grassroots issue. Nus Ghani, the first female Muslim minister, still awaits the promised inquiry report into her allegation of discriminatory language being used by the chief whip in telling her why she was sacked.
ESRC research found that a quarter of party members feel there are ‘too many’ Muslim MPs – and 17% that there are far too many. Some with those views might still see Sajid Javid, of Muslim heritage, and Rishi Sunak, a Hindu, similarly as fellow Conservatives. Many ethnic minority Britons are familiar with this ‘I don’t mean you, of course’ experience where familiarity mitigates prejudices. But stronger leadership is needed to shift the culture for good.
That ethnic minorities can reach the top of the political ladder matters – but it would certainly not make either Britain or the Conservative party a post-racial nirvana. While it will take more to shift the Conservatives’ share of the ethnic minority vote, the leadership contest sends a powerful symbolic message about the race to the top. The next challenge will be to develop the substantive agenda to deliver on that promise.
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