Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
Next month’s general election may well see the Conservatives overtake Labour as the party with the most ethnic minority MPs in the Commons. If Theresa May secures the type of landslide, three-figure majority suggested by the opinion polls, new research suggests that she would be on course to achieve that symbolic overturning of the left’s historic claim to leadership in this area.
There would be 22 ethnic minority Tories (+5) and 21 non-white Labour MPs (-2) and one Scottish Asian SNP MP after the election, were the parties were to win the constituencies where they start the short campaign as favourites, according to new research into the 2017 candidate selections by British Future. That would reverse the current pattern of 23 ethnic minority Labour MPs to 17 for the Conservatives. The final totals will depend on the scale of the Government’s majority, and several constituency races that are too close to call with any confidence.
Whichever party edges ahead on election night, this neck and neck battle between the parties captures an underappreciated story of British integration. It is exactly 30 years since another female Prime Minister took advantage of a divided opposition to call a June election, putting her case to voters that there was no credible alternative.
But for all those political echoes, the Parliament dissolved in 1987 was entirely white, despite governing an increasingly multi-ethnic Britain. That even four of the 650 MPs returned on June 11th 1987 were the first black and Asian MPs in the post-war era was a historic breakthrough. There has been a ten-fold increase since 1987, but most of that advance came in a rapid burst of progress in just the last seven years, with the rise from 15 to 27 non-white MPs in 2010 and again from 27 to 41 in 2015. The 2017 election will lock in that progress, but looks set to disappoint those hoping for a further step change.
British Future’s best pre-campaign estimate is a total of between 40 to 45 non-white MPs in the next Commons. There are three main reasons why the total looks sets to either stay steady or rise much more gradually this time around.
First, a short two-year parliament has seen fewer retirements. On average, 60 to 80 MPs choose not to stand again at the end of a full Parliament, but the rate has been halved this time. Just 12 Conservatives and 14 Labour MPs are standing down: the parties have chosen five ethnic minority candidates between them in those 26 seats, while all of the retirees are white. So there would almost certainly be more ethnic minority candidates defending safe seats had there been the usual number of retirements.
Second, and for the first time in 30 years, Labour appears unlikely to contribute to a 2017 advance in Commons diversity. The party has again selected a strong share of ethnic minority candidates: the simple political problem for Labour is that none of its target seats look winnable this time around. If Labour could stand still by keeping its current seats, its tally of non-white MPs would rise from 23 to 26, after selections of minority candidates in three of the 14 Labour retirement seats.
Yet this trio of new candidates all face challenging constituency races. Labour are the underdogs in Birmingham Edgbaston and Wolverhampton South-West. Tan Dhesi, defending a 7,336 majority in Slough, has the best chance of making it to the Commons. And six of the twenty-three current ethnic minority Labour MPs face a tough re-election race this year, with at least three considered more likely to be unseated than re-elected.
Both Rupa Huq in Ealing Central and Acton and Tulip Siddiq in Hampstead and Kilburn are certainly underdogs, defending London seats near the top of the Conservative target list. In Bristol West, Thangham Debonaire is given a one-in-three re-election chance by the bookmakers, though the unique dynamics of a Labour-Green-LibDem marginal make the outcome especially hard to predict. Roseena Alli-Khan in Tooting and Clive Lewis in Norwich South will face considerable Tory challenges, but start as narrow favourites to hold on. Valerie Vaz has a larger majority in Walsall South, but the clear Conservative lead in Walsall in the West Midlands Mayoral contest means it looks like a knife-edge constituency.
But Labour will none the less return a substantial group: 16 ethnic minority MPs hold majorities over 10,000 and would probably survive an electoral cataclysm in which the party lost over half of its seats and was reduced to a rump of 100 MPs.
Third, if any progress in 2017 will depend heavily on the Conservatives, that party is making gradual rather than spectacular progress on ethnic diversity. The Tory class of 2017 looks set to bring four or five new ethnic minority MPs into the Commons. That is a fairly modest contribution, especially if the party does make the dozens of gains predicted: a similar, or slightly reduced, proportion compared to the six ethnic minority Conservatives among the 74-strong Tory class of 2015 cohort.
The 2017 election will, however, see the party lock in its recent progress. Seventeen ethnic minority Tory MPs are running again as near-certainties to return. Kemi Badenoch’s selection in Saffron Walden, and Bim Alofami being the choice to replace Peter Lilley in Hitchen and Harpenden, again shows that local Tory associations are willing to select black candidates across the counties and shires of deepest England.
The Conservative Party across the 2015 and 2017 cycles follows a pattern of being more likely to select ethnic minority candidates in safe seats than in marginals. There are just three non-white candidates selected to contest the 75 opposition seats most vulnerable to Tory challenge. Paul Uppal is strong favourite to regain the Wolverhampton South-West seat he narrowly lost to Labour in 2015, while Reshema Kotecha takes on a larger 4,500 Labour majority in Coventry North-West. Oldham East and Saddleworth ranks 63rd on the Conservative target list by 2015 majority, and so would be expected to remain Labour, unless the Tory majority was well into triple figures. But Ladbrokes cite Kashaf Ali, a local solicitor, as the initial favourite to overturn a 6,000 majority.
The Tory progress in 2017 is primarily a reflection of the party’s overall political dominance. Labour would still have almost as many ethnic minority MPs, even if the Conservatives had double the number of MPs overall. But the 2017 election shows just how important it was for ethnic diversity to break out across the party spectrum over the last decade to insulate progress on diversity in parliament from the swing of the political pendulum.
The Liberal Democrats are again likely to make no progress on ethnic diversity – a factor exacerbated by the snap election leading many defeated MPs to stand again, given that the party’s 57 strong group of MPs before 2015 was entirely white.
But whichever party edges ahead on ethnic minority representation, it is welcome that the orthodoxies of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s on this aspect of politics have been overturned. Progress was so slow for two decades after 1987 because the politics of ethnic diversity got bunkered in by two narrow, prevailing assumptions: first, that this was an agenda for the left not the right; and, second, that ‘ethnic faces for ethnic voters’ was the route to electoral success for minority candidates.
The first Conservative Asian MP was elected back in 1895, but it took nearly a century to elect a second in 1992, and a third in 2005. Too many on selection committees in both parties believed for too long that voters outside of highly diverse inner city seats were probably ‘not ready’ for a non-white candidate. This prejudice about voters was reinforced for another generation by an unfounded, political-class mythology and misunderstanding of John Taylor’s high-profile defeat in Cheltenham in 1992 – an idea decisively rejected by constituency associations and voters since 2010.
We now know that British voters are much more interested in party colours than the skin colour of their candidates. That also means the assumption that selecting ethnic minority MPs was the key to winning ethnic minority votes was always rather simplistic and lazy. The best case for caring about ethnic diversity in politics is not, in a representative democracy, that parliament needs to be an exact demographic microcosm of every group in society. Rather, it is that the meritocratic principle of “fair chances and no unfair barriers” should lead to powerful institutions like Parliament attracting talent from across the society we now are. If that doesn’t happen, or gets stuck, the barriers and hurdles will need more attention.
The May administration should offer its own account of how a One Nation politics of meritocracy should animate a centre-right push to promote equal opportunity, tackle racial discrimination and promote integration. This new Parliament has the task of shaping post-Brexit Britain: how our society will show that it rewards effort and talent from every class, colour and creed should be high up on that agenda.
Class of 2017 prospects
‘Chance of winning’ figures based on current betting odds.
- Kemi Badenoch (Saffron Walden) – defending Conservative majority 24,991. Chance of winning: 99 per cent.
- Bim Alofami (Hitchin and Harpenden) – defending Conservative majority 20,055. Chance of winning: 99 per cent.
- Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South-West) – challenging Labour majority 801. Chance of winning: 80 per cent.
- Resham Kotecha (Coventry North-West) – challenging Labour majority 4,509. Chance of winning: 60 per cent.
- Kashif Ali (Oldham East and Saddleworth) – challenging Labour majority 6,002. Chance of winning: 55 per cent.
- Eleanor Smith (Wolverhampton South-West) – defending Labour majority 801. Chance of winning: 20 per cent.
- Preet Gill (Birmingham Edgbaston) – defending Labour majority 2,706. Chance of winning: 25 per cent.
- Tan Dhesi (Slough) – defending Labour majority 7,336. Chance of winning: 50 per cent
Current ethnic minority MPs defending marginal seats
Rupa Huq (Labour, Ealing Central and Action), 274 majority over Conservatives. Chance of winning: 20 per cent.
Tuliq Siddiq (Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn), 1138 majority over Conservatives. Chance of winning: 20 per cent.
Thangam Debonnaire (Labour, Bristol West), 5,673 majority over Greens. Chance of winning: 40 per cent.
Valerie Vaz (Labour, Walsall South), 6,007 majority over Conservatives. Chance of winning: 50 per cent.
Roseena Alli-Khan (Labour, Tooting), 2,842 majority over Conservatives. . Chance of winning: 60 per cent.
Clive Lewis (Labour, Norwich South), 7,654 majority over Conservatives. Chance of winning: 60 per cent.
Imran Hussain (Labour, Bradford East), 7,084 majority over LibDems. Chance of winning: 90 per cent.