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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.

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.

“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.