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21 October 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 4:55am

How white men still dominate British political life

White men continue to hold disproportionate political power both institutionally and online, according to a New Statesman analysis.

By Harry Lambert

Political power and influence is still largely the preserve of white men according to two new analyses by the New Statesman, one examining institutional power in government and the other assessing political influence online.

It is already well known that the upper echelons of government are far from diverse. There are 25 cabinet-attending ministers in Boris Johnson’s government. Seventeen of them, or 68 per cent, are white men. This is a reflection of the parliamentary Tory party: 71 per cent of Johnson’s MPs are white men. 

But a New Statesman analysis shows that this imbalance is widespread across the top of the public sector. We examined the government’s official list of civil servants who are paid more than £100,000. The most recent version of the list, with data from September 2019, lists 496 people above that threshold. The list is overwhelmingly dominated by white men, who hold 73 per cent of the posts.

That is the one form of political power. There is also influence. To examine that we looked at Twitter, and analysed eight prominent accounts from across Britain’s political and news media establishment. Two of the accounts belonged to newspaper columnists, one to a broadsheet editor, one to a major television presenter and two to news executives. (Of these, four were men and two were women.) The seventh and eighth accounts were those of Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer.

We looked at who these accounts followed. In each case, the answer was consistent. The percentage of white men followed by the six accounts not belonging to the party leaders was 63, 73, 74, 77, 80 and 93 per cent. For Johnson the number was 72 per cent; for Starmer it was 56. 

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The typical percentage of white men followed across the eight accounts was 74 per cent. To put this in context, white men make up around 43 per cent of the UK population. In London – the home of Britain’s political establishment – that number is as low as 30 per cent. Yet in both the corridors of power and the timelines of Twitter, white men continue to predominate. 

The number of white men on the list of highly paid civil servants ranges across government: from 74 per cent in the Cabinet Office to 82 per cent in the Department for Transport, and 59 per cent in the Department of Health. All seven Foreign Office positions, and 11 of the 12 listed Treasury posts, were also held by white men. Seventy-one per cent of the positions held at permanent secretary rank, the highest in the civil service, were similarly held by them.

This is the sort of proportion that also holds across political life on Twitter, according to our analysis. Among the political elite, seven of the ten chairs around the table, so to speak, tend to be held by white men.

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One might argue that any analysis of Twitter followings is ephemeral and irrelevant. The preferences of Boris Johnson’s Twitter, for instance, are arguably meaningless: he will not run the account. The Prime Minister is far more likely to be informed by his No 10 team, his cabinet, his party, the civil service and the media. But his Twitter feed is a window into all of those worlds. Johnson’s account reflects a real-world power structure, meaningful as a mirror to society.

This link, between the online world and the actual one, is evident when you compare Johnson’s list to Starmer’s. Of the accounts the Labour leader follows, 56 per cent are white men, 33 per cent white women, 5.5 per cent BAME men, and 5.5 per cent BAME women. The gulf between white men and BAME women in Starmer’s timeline is ten-fold. It is 30-fold for Johnson.

Starmer’s list is still notably unrepresentative of Britain – nationally there are around six times as many white men as BAME women – but Starmer’s timeline is relatively diverse, for which he can credit the party he leads.

His list is primarily more diverse because it includes more white women than Johnson’s, rather than because he follows many more people from a BAME background. He likely follows more women because his party is far better at electing women than the Conservatives. Of the 110 women that Starmer followed when this analysis was carried out (he has since followed and unfollowed a handful of accounts), 53 are current or former MPs. 

Starmer is benefiting from a conscious policy effort made by the Labour Party over the past 25 years: all-women shortlists. That policy, of reserving certain seats for female candidates, is a key reason why a majority of Labour’s MPs are now women. (Prior to the policy, enacted ahead of the 1997 general election, only 14 per cent of Labour’s MPs were female.)

The problem for Britain’s public-sector elite, and the Twitter accounts of its media class, is how closely they both reflect the archaic balance of Johnson’s Tory party, rather than the diversity of Labour’s parliamentary ranks. Both the civil service and the media may need their own set of shortlists.

It is also not just a question of who is followed, but who is retweeted. New Statesman analysis of 15 popular journalists on Twitter, most of them white men, and many of them left-leaning liberals, found that all the accounts overwhelmingly retweeted white men. White men made up seven or eight of the ten most retweeted accounts among these leading journalists. 

The same holds largely true for female journalists, whether they are white or BAME, right-wing or left-wing. People are, in other words, unlikely to be making a conscious choice. They are simply amplifying those who have standing and access. This system is self-perpetuating.

I put the data to Salma Shah, who served as Sajid Javid’s senior special adviser while he was Home Secretary from 2018 to 2019. “The structural bias of the old order,” she said, “seems very much intact.”

A BAME journalist who works at a national newspaper thought that the data was “grim”. “If the people making the big decisions, whether in politics or the media, only get their news and commentary from a certain type of person,” the journalist said, “then they can’t represent modern British societies.”

[See also: Anoosh Chakelian and Ben Walker investigate Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities]