Labour's leadership contenders are all white. Does that matter?

Either Labour's ethnic minority candidates aren't as good as their Tory equivalents - or Labour has a problem.

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To lose one ethnic minority candidate from your leadership race is unfortunate. To lose two looks like carelessness, or worse, systematic bigotry.

A Labour leadership race that looked like it would feature the first plausible contender to be Britain’s first black Prime Minister now won’t feature any ethnic minority candidates at all, either for the top role or the deputy position, after Rushanara Ali pulled out of the race to allow the rest of the chasing pack to make the ballot paper.

To which many will say: it’s not about skin colour but quality. What matters is that the best rise to the top. This is certainly true: Ali was the first person in her family to go to university – like so many Labour MPs, she has a First in PPE from the University of Oxford – and before she became an MP set up a charity, UpRising, as well as working at the Home Office and the IPPR.  It’s difficult to make the case that, say Tom Watson has a sufficiently impressive CV that he really deserves the support of 62 MPs while Ali gets none. Or that Caroline Flint does. Or Angela Eagle. Or Ben Bradshaw.

But here’s the kicker: the excess MPs – Flint had six to spare, Eagle three, Bradshaw two, and Watson 27 – would have been enough to get Ali on the ballot.

To which many will say: well, Ali just didn’t impress enough people. She pulled out with just 24 MPs, well short of qualification. Perhaps she genuinely isn’t as talented or impressive as Watson or Flint or Bradshaw or Eagle or Creasy. Maybe Chuka Umunna’s early exit from the Labour leadership race does, in fact, show he hasn’t the steel to be Labour leader.  

Well, it’s certainly arguable. That should, if anything, worry Labour more. On the Conservative side, Sajid Javid is already in the Cabinet, Priti Patel is knocking on the door. On the foothills of the government, Sam Gyimah is already carving out a niche as a strong advocate of a cuddlier form of Conservatism, while in the new intake, Rishi Sunak, Alan Mak, Nusrat Ghani and Suella Fernandes should  be receiving red boxes sooner rather than later. It seems a nailed-on certainty that the race to succeed David Cameron will include at least one, potentially two ethnic minority candidates in the race.

So, really, there are two possibilities for Labour, both of which should trouble them: either their ethnic minority candidates simply aren’t of the same quality as the ones on the Conservative benches, in which case, how can they improve their recruitment to close the gap? Or: their candidates are of equivalent quality – but for whatever reason, they simply aren’t making the same waves within their party as the Tory equivalents are.

After all, let's face it, neither Umunna nor Ali were likely to win, were they? When the dust settles, in all probability, the winners will be Andy Burnham and Tom Watson. Barring a Rachel Dolezal-style turn from either man, Labour's leadership will be very male and rather pale.

It feels as if Labour has swallowed its own propaganda. They've got the history - that wave of ethnic minorities in 1987, the equal rights legislation - and a considerable pile of polling showing that for ethnic minority voters, voting is as easy as ABC (Anyone But Conservative). So they wait for ethnic minorities to come to them, repeating the old applause lines about racist vans - never mind the mugs, eh - while the Tories, quietly and efficiently, are going out of their way to find the best and the brightest ethnic minority talent around.

Not to worry, though: Labour are still the party of ethnic minorities. You know, just like they were the party of Scotland.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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