As Black Lives Matter protests spread, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, was recently taken to task about the lack of diversity in the government of prime minister, Boris Johnson. When pressed about the lack of black cabinet ministers, Hancock said that British Asian politicians currently occupy two of the four great offices of state – Priti Patel, home secretary and Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer.
When his interviewer pointed out that she had asked specifically about black cabinet members, not Asian cabinet members, Hancock failed to acknowledge that the absence of black MPs at the top level was a problem, implying that the current representation in the cabinet is enough.
It’s true that the 2019 parliament is Britain’s most diverse parliament ever. There are now 65 ethnic minority MPs, which equates to 10% of the House of Commons. And the 2010 election was a watershed moment for the representation of ethnic minorities in the Conservative Party. Prior to this, the Labour Party had a virtual monopoly on the representation of ethnic minorities in the House of Commons.
The 2010 general election saw a huge increase in the number of ethnic minority MPs in the Conservative Party – from two to 11. The Conservative Party now has 22 minority ethnic MPs. This happened after a concerted effort to promote more ethnic minority candidates in an attempt to modernise the party and reach out to ethnic minority voters.
But despite this progress, ethnic minorities still only make up around 6% of the Conservatives’ 365 MPs. Ethnic minorities constituted 13% of the British population at the last census – and that was nine years ago. So, complacency is not an option. And yet it was hard not to hear complacency from Hancock. This complacency undermines the progress the Conservatives have made in diversifying the party over the past ten years.
When pushed on his comments about the lack of diversity in the cabinet, the health secretary said what was more important is that it has “diversity of thought”. But diversity of thought is not akin to actual diversity.
Parliament and government
The absence of ethnic minorities from deliberative bodies and the executive undermines the quality of democracy. This is because it often means that the issues that concern ethnic minority voters are left off the political agenda.
Having a truly representative parliament means more views can be included in the deliberative process. Labour’s David Lammy, for example, has specifically cited his Caribbean heritage as a driving force behind his work to hold the last government to account over its treatment of the Windrush generation.
And in government, cabinet ministers play a powerful role in decision making. Sunak, as chancellor, could theoretically formulate the government’s fiscal or monetary policy while taking into account the interests of marginalised groups such as ethnic minorities.
The “diversity of thought” Hancock spoke of has not led successive Conservative governments to emphasise the interests of black Britons. These governments have, instead, appeared committed to racially repressive policies that have had a detrimental effect on the lives of black people in the UK.
David Cameron and Theresa May’s governments presided over austerity throughout their premierships, despite evidence that black women in the UK were being disproportionately affected by cuts.
Alarmingly, despite the presence of Sunak and Patel in key posts, this government has continued the hostile environment policy that created the Windrush scandal in the first place. This scandal is perhaps the most flagrant recent example of the state’s disregard for black lives. Hundreds of British Caribbeans have been wrongly deported or denied access to key services such as healthcare after being incorrectly deemed illegal migrants. The government has not repealed the legislation that led to this scandal.
Conservatives in particular should do some thinking about how their core political tenets are preventing the party from addressing the inequalities faced by black people.
The Conservative Party has typically adopted a colour-blind approach. But this overlooks the salient role race and racism play in shaping the lives of ethnic minorities. This is best exemplified by the 1983 Conservative poster which adopted the slogan “Labour say he’s black, Tories say he is British”. Ethnic minority Conservative politicians have also been keen to downplay their race, saying they don’t view it as a significant feature of their identity.
There has, in recent times, been a slight rhetorical shift away from the colour-blind approach. Some ethnic minority MPs, including Sunak and Sajid Javid, his predecessor as chancellor, have stated that racism is a problem, for example. But this is usually caveated by the claim that Britain is not racist. Therein lies the problem – the Conservatives’ acknowledgement of racism is undermined by an attempt to minimise its pervasiveness.
In his bid to modernise the party, Cameron made an open commitment to tackling racial discrimination. But his support for ethnic minority candidates was not backed up with any actual policies. May has a similar record. Her government commissioned the Race Disparity Audit in 2017, but failed to act on the findings, which highlighted some of the inequalities faced by ethnic minorities in the UK.
Johnson, much like his predecessors, has stressed the importance of tackling racism but is yet to offer any policy commitments that would address racism in the UK.
Another one of the tenets of conservatism is individualism – the idea that anyone can be successful as long as they apply themselves. But individualism ignores the systemic barriers faced by historically marginalised groups across society. The presence of a black politician in parliament, therefore, is not a guarantee that they will promote the interests of the black community if they are committed to the politics of individualism and not social justice.
The tone of the Black Lives Matter protests suggests that there is a growing disillusionment with formal politics and democratic procedures among black people in the UK. Several cabinet members, including Johnson, have gone on record to state that “Black Lives Matter”. If the government really wants to show that they value black lives, they must move beyond platitudes and place anti-racism at the core of their politics.