The next PM may well be from an ethnic minority. That’s a big deal – and a challenge for Labour

Show caption ‘If Rishi Sunak loses, it’ll be because of his actions on tax or Boris Johnson, not because he’s Asian.’ Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA Opinion The next PM may well be from an ethnic minority. That’s a big deal – and a challenge for Labour Jonathan Freedland If Starmer’s party is seen as one that values minorities only when they need protection, solid sources of votes will dry up @Freedland Fri 15 Jul 2022 17.18 BST Share on Facebook

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You don’t have to like them. You can find their views repellent. You can promise never to vote for a single one of them. But you have to admit: the fact that six of the initial 11 candidates for the Conservative party leadership, four of the eight who made it on to the first ballot, are from an ethnic minority, and the fact that the next prime minister is all but certain to be a woman or a person of colour, or both, is a big deal. It is a significant moment in the politics of this country – even if it has induced conflicted and contradictory feelings in progressives.

Consider what is actually happening here. Just before the election of 2010, the Tories could point to a grand total of one black and one Asian MP. Those two represented half the number of MPs from a visible ethnic minority that had represented the party since 1895. The general election of 2001 had brought 38 new Conservative MPs to Westminster: 37 were white men and the 38th was a white woman.

But in the past week we’ve contemplated an upending not only of those numbers, but of much of the conventional wisdom on how diversity plays out in long-established institutions. Plenty of studies note, for example, the confidence gap that often sees people of colour reluctant to put themselves forward for the most senior jobs. Yet nearly one in three Tory MPs from an ethnic minority sought the party leadership, making them 25 times more likely to run than their white colleagues.

An equally familiar pattern has the white majority in organisations appointing black or Asian colleagues as deputies while keeping the most senior positions for themselves. But that didn’t happen here. Note how Brexit hardliner Steve Baker chose not to run as the self-styled Spartan candidate, but stood behind Suella Braverman instead. Michael Gove made way for Kemi Badenoch. Ideology has trumped identity in this contest. If Rishi Sunak loses, it’ll be because of his actions on tax or Boris Johnson, not because of his Asian heritage.

“It’s the opposite of what you’d expect,” says Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future thinktank. “They’ve cracked a big part of the problem that the race and identity literature is all about.”

This has prompted some cognitive dissonance among anti-racists who want diversity but cannot stand the Tories. They’re telling themselves that what’s happening in this contest doesn’t quite count. Katwala sees the danger of people thinking: “Maybe it’s a trick. Because we’re better people than they are.” That risk is especially sharp for supporters of Labour, which has only ever elected leaders who are white and male.

That dissonance has taken some ugly forms: witness the meme consisting of photographs of leading black or Asian Tories with white partners. The implication is that they are black or Asian in name only, as it were; or, worse, that they are, in that poisonous phrase, race traitors. Prof Gus John asked in the Jamaican newspaper the Gleaner: “Why should I rejoice because ‘massa’ has recruited a bunch of house negroes and handed them whips to keep me in bondage and under control?”

John’s argument is that the presence of a few individuals at the top table does nothing for “the majority of us who experience systemic racism daily in all areas of our life”. And he’s right that only a fool would regard the elevation of, say, Winchester-educated Sunak to Downing Street as solving racism in Britain. Of course it’s not everything. But it’s not nothing either. For while class barriers remain as high as ever, the fact that some of the barriers of race and sex are lowering in the party of the establishment is significant. (I say “some” because it is striking that one of the most qualified candidates, Sajid Javid, did not clear the first hurdle: perhaps that had nothing to do with his being a Muslim, but Islamophobia is hardly banished from the Tory ranks.) That may, for now, represent no more than a shift within the elite, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it.

Not least because there may be something to learn from it, for Labour especially. True, Labour has more MPs of colour than the Tories, but its upper echelon is not nearly as diverse. The change in the Tory party came about because of a decision from the top, ruthlessly pursued. For strategic reasons, David Cameron set about recruiting black and Asian candidates for safe Tory seats and the fruit of that effort is the current crop of would-be leaders.

Labour’s selection machinery is more complex and difficult to navigate. The party has often proved better at talking about racism than tackling it – “overthinking and underdoing,” as one observer puts it – and its actions have had unintended consequences. One Labour MP points to the introduction of all-women shortlists, which did wonders for the parliamentary party’s gender balance but with one unwelcome result. “Where are the black men on the Labour benches? It turns out Cameron’s method worked better than ours did: the black men are in his party, not ours.”

But there is a larger electoral point here too. To be sure, there is no reason to think the presence of black and Asian faces in the Tory high command will translate into more black and Asian votes: Jeremy Corbyn was 70, but that didn’t help Labour win pensioners. Besides, “ethnic minority” is too broad a category to have much electoral meaning: black Britons’ experience is not the same as British Indians’, which is not the same as British Pakistanis’. But there is a risk for Labour nevertheless. If it is seen as the party for minorities only when those communities need protection, not once they have become established or successful, moving up and out, then previously solid sources of votes will steadily dry up. Labour has to be the party of both ambition and solidarity. And, like most things, that doesn’t just apply to minority voters – but to everyone.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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