Will Britain have a black prime minister? Don't bet against it

A bigger barrier today than the remaining levels of prejudice of the electorate is an exaggeration of the prejudice of the electorate by the media and political classes.

“I don’t think there will ever be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime”, education secretary Margaret Thatcher said in 1973. She was the only woman in Ted Heath’s Cabinet then, so the prognosis looked more like sensible scepticism than false modesty. There are good reasons to hope that Doreen Lawrence’s doubts that she will ever see a black Prime Minister might also be overtaken by events.

If anyone has grounds for scepticism until promises of progress turn into solid outcomes, it is Doreen Lawrence. Today, she leads a memorial service for her son Stephen, twenty years after he was stabbed and killed, for having the wrong colour skin as he looked for a bus home. That crime came to shock Britain, eventually, though it took four years for the failure to catch his murderers to become the stuff of national headlines and then a public inquiry. This anniversary is rightly being used to scrutinise whether the momentum behind high-profile commitments to change when the inquiry reported in 1999 has stalled since.

In politics, there has been a sharp acceleration of progress since the 1990s on breaking down barriers to fair chances. Britain had non-white MPs in the nineteenth century, but the modern story begins with the breakthrough of the class of 1987, with Bernie Grant and Dianne Abbott, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz entering the Commons. There was only glacially slow progress for another generation. There were five non-white MPs when Stephen Lawrence was killed in 1993, and only four (2 per cent) of the 183 new Labour MPs elected in the 1997 landslide were not white. It took five general elections to see the number of MPs from minority backgrounds creep up from four to fifteen MPs. The doubling to 28 non-white MPs in the 2010 election marked a step-change, reflecting two things. Labour now selects non-white candidates in about one in ten new selections, giving a broadly proportionate overall share of the new intake. 

Crucially, the emergence of a new cohort of ethnic minority Conservatives breaks the dangerous pattern of one party having a near monopoly of minority representation, which would risk making the diversity of a national parliament highly vulnerable to the swing of a partisan political pendulum. So it is especially important that the 28 non-white MPs today cross party lines – with 15 Labour MPs and 13 Conservatives. (The Liberal Democrats remain stalled on the starting line, continuing to select minority candidates in highly diverse constituencies where the Lib Dems have little change, while the Conservatives in 2010 managed to break with an ‘ethnic candidates for ethnic voters’ approach).

Will anybody make it to the very top? British Future’s new report finds that 13 per cent of people say they would be uncomfortable with a Prime Minister of a different ethnicity to themselves, and 7 per cent that they would be strongly opposed to this. The national leadership role of Prime Minister now has mildly higher levels of discomfort than any other cross-racial interaction – 6 per cent would be uncomfortable about a next door neighbour; while their own children marrying across ethnic lines would have worried 44 per cent of people in the 1990s but makes only 9 per cent anxious in 2013.

These levels of discomfort are not negligible. But they have now fallen too low to significantly impact a real general election. Those voters who don’t know how they would feel about a hypothetical black Prime Minister would, in reality, vote on their views of the government’s performance, their trust in the major political parties, the economic record, and the perceived leadership skills of the actual individuals leading their parties. Even among the racially prejudiced minority, many will do the same. There will doubtless have been a section of pretty strongly chauvinist Conservative voters in 1979 who would not have chosen a woman leader if asked, yet who will not switched to re-elect Jim Callaghan because of it. (Some may even have come to change their minds about women in roles of leadership afterwards).

A potentially bigger barrier today than the remaining levels of prejudice of the electorate is an exaggeration of the prejudice of the electorate by the anti-prejudice media and political classes.

To get to be President, Barack Obama had to persuade his party that it was not a self-harming risk to let him run as the Democrat candidate for President. Indeed, the tangible fact of Obama's own Presidential campaign itself helped to increase the numbers of Americans who thought America was ready for a black President from 62 per cent in 2006 up to 76 per cent during the 2008 primary season, though black Americans remained more sceptical than whites until it happened. But were still a great many pieces, up until the month of the election itself, worrying about whether the US could ever elect a black President, citing the so-called “Bradley effect” of covert prejudice meaning that a candidate would under-perform the polls, though academics had long tried to point out was no longer supported by the evidence, but had become a "pernicious myth" which could itself be a barrier to fair chances.

A similar problem set back progress at a local candidate level in Britain in the 1990s. Newspapers still habitually retail the mythology that a black candidate lost the “safe Tory seat” of Cheltenham in 1992 because of race. It isn’t true – the swing in the marginal seat was identical to that in Gloucester and Bath. A white barrister from Birmingham would surely have lost the seat, just as John Taylor, the black barrister from Birmingham did. But the myth was damaging. As Shamit Saggar has pointed out, this led to an “imputed racism” effect, where selectors stress that “they do not discriminate against black and Asian but that they fear that voters will discriminate on that basis, and so selectors play safe and shy away from adopting black and Asian candidates”.

The Cheltenham myth lost some of its power when Gloucester elected Parmjit Dhanda in a marginal seat in 1997, allowing him to prove wrong the local newspaper’s claims that the area was not ready to elect a ‘foreigner’ . It was routinely disproved in the 2010 election. While the class of 2010 did not yet make Parliament representative of modern Britain, but the step-change in progress should help to finally make non-white politicians a normal feature of our public life, not an exotic fringe feature, even if that remains a little lost on headline-writers, in their excitement at finding a “British Obama” or “black Boris”.

Finally, there is the intriguing possibility that a political party could actively benefit at the ballot box from a non-white leader. Electoral geography means this is unlikely to apply to a social democratic or centre-left party. But it could yet be the case for the Conservatives, who won 16 per cent of the non-white vote, compared to 36 per cent of the white vote. The party now faces what influential backbencher Gavin Barwell has called an “existential challenge” in coming to terms with Britain’s growing diversity. The US Republican failure with Hispanic voters is concentrating minds too.

Overcoming historic perceptions of the party among non-white voters will, of course, be a task for any Conservative leader, and party strategists are studying Lord Ashcroft’s detailed analysis of the challenge. There is no need to see a non-white leader as necessarily the key to overcoming this - and the party can not wait to elect a minority leader to make progress since increasing its share of minority votes is essential to any future majority strategy in 2015 or beyond.

However, in age of personality politics, a non-white Tory leader would doubtless be one way to send a message about the party’s commitment to meritocracy and inclusion. After all, it was no coincidence that the Conservatives after Sir Alec Douglas-Home strongly preferred over the next forty years to choose leaders with the non-privileged social backgrounds of Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major or William Hague rather than those like Douglas Hurd, who went to a leading private school. (Though David Cameron and Boris Johnson showed that Etonians can break this new glass ceiling for those who did go to the poshest schools!).

For similar reasons, if a well qualified black or Asian leader who could speak the language of the Tory tribe were to emerge in a future leadership contest as the best candidate, they would very likely be more of an asset than a liability for the party’s broader electoral chances.

The shifting make-up of the political class means that there will almost certainly be a non-white Chancellor, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary in the next decade, creating a flurry of excitement about a ‘first’, before people go on to praise or barrack them over their performance in the role.

A Prime Minister too? Nobody could confidently predict when it will happen. If somebody is good enough, there is no electoral reason why not on the basis of race. And remember that the Conservatives did not make Benjamin Disraeli or Margaret Thatcher leader to break glass ceilings. They acted in their electoral self-interest to choose the candidate most likely to win them new votes, even if they did not fit the traditional mould. Don’t bet against it happening again.

Barack Obama greets the media as he and David Cameron pose for pictures outside 10 Downing Street in London, on May 24, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.