Why the first black British prime minister is likely to be a Conservative

The great secret to the Conservatives’ increasingly diverse parliamentary party is their even greater institutional health.

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Theresa May’s official portrait has been added to the wall of pictures of previous prime ministers – the second woman to be included, and the second Conservative woman.

This reminded me of something I’ve long believed: that the first black British prime minister will be African-British, and will also be a Conservative. In the spirit that you should write down your most stupid opinions so that you can learn from them later, here’s why.

That Theresa May is not even the first female Conservative prime minister underlines the party’s remarkable near-monopoly of political firsts – the first ethnic minority prime minister in Benjamin Disraeli; the first female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher; the first British Asian to run for the role of prime minister in Sajid Javid, who also became the first British Asian to occupy the roles of chancellor and home secretary; the first Muslim to attend cabinet in Sayeeda Warsi; the first Asian-British woman to be home secretary in Priti Patel; the first ethnic minority to serve as chair of either main party in James Cleverly. So the Conservative Party has a history of breaking these records, and therefore I suspect is likely to break this one, too.  

People often attribute this to the British right’s different view of diversity and opportunity, whether as a positive (the party doesn’t care about identity, but hard work or merit) or a negative (the party tends to view success through the prism of whether the exceptional can achieve, rather than the rewards that flow to the merely average).

I think both views are precisely wrong: across the world, political parties with intellectual traditions very similar to those of the Conservatives have much worse records on diversity, including those that do better among ethnic minority and female voters than the Tories. Political parties with similar intellectual traditions and approaches to diversity as Labour have much better records on diversity, specifically in selecting and electing parliamentary candidates from a diverse background.

The reason the Conservatives have been more successful at hitting these historical firsts has little to do with their political views about diversity, which are, in any case, complex and conflicting. There is no single Conservative Party view on how to increase diversity, or even what it means to “increase diversity”, and that division is also present among the party’s minority MPs.

The reason the Conservative Party has been more successful at hitting these historical firsts is because it is more successful in general. From the party’s exit from the Liberal-Conservative coalition in 1922 until the rise of Tony Blair,  every Conservative Party leader also became prime minister. One reason to believe that the first black British prime minister will be a Conservative is because the British prime minister is almost always a Conservative.

That political success cannot be separated from their greater diversity. It’s not that diverse leadership is, in and of itself, more likely to produce more effective leadership; it’s that effective leadership is more likely to produce greater diversity. If you have more open recruitment and fairer internal progression, then you will have more talent, and inevitably more diversity, be it of ethnic background, religion, career or outlook (though the latter can be less of a priority for political parties).

The main reason the Conservative Party has contributed so many historic firsts is not because of its particular attitude to diversity, but because of its institutional health. The Conservative Party is one of the most successful political parties in the democratic world, and has consistently been more effective at reacting to changing times than its opponents.  

We can see evidence of that with its diverse parliamentary party. The modern Conservative Party is reaping the fruits of David Cameron’s political strategy, which was, to put it crudely, based on a simple problem: that a bunch of people from a variety of ethnic minority backgrounds, who looked identical to reliable Conservative voters, had similar incomes and attitudes and so on, were not voting Tory. And part of his tactic to tackle the problem was to improve the recruitment of candidates from those backgrounds, which he and his party did very effectively.

So it’s not just that the Conservatives are more likely to provide Britain’s first black prime minister because they are electorally successful; their electoral success is, in part, the product of the things they do well and that make them more likely to produce Britain’s first black prime minister.

Another part of that success comes in how the Conservative Party uses its safe seats better than Labour has tended to in recent years. One reason black men are now much better represented in the parliamentary ranks of the Conservatives than in Labour, is that Labour has been fairly reluctant to run ethnic minority candidates in majority-majority constituencies (that's to say, constituencies where the majority of people are white British). Of the Labour Party’s ethnic minority MPs, just three – Mark Hendrick, Lisa Nandy and Sarah Owen – sit for constituencies that are not majority-minority. 

An underrated dynamic in parliamentary democracies is that the losing party is always, almost by definition, drawing from a smaller talent pool: they have fewer parliamentary seats and therefore they are fishing in a smaller pond when they put together their frontbench and leadership team.

Using your safe seats well – so that, even if you are wiped out outside your strongholds in the south of England, as the Conservative Party was in 1997, you still have some MPs from Scotland and the north of England – is a big part of your political success. That happens to manifest itself in this specific area with a parliamentary party that is also more ethnically diverse, but it has a number of other benefits.

It’s not simply that the Conservatives' parliamentary party is increasingly more diverse; it’s that the third of ethnic minority voters to back the Conservative Party are also better represented within that diversity. There are socially conservative but economically centrist ethnic minority MPs, there are classical Thatcherites – almost the whole tapestry of the Conservative vote can be found. The same is not true for Labour.

That’s the other reason I feel safe in my prediction: because predicting Labour will provide the first black British prime minister, as it stands, involves making quite a big political bet, not only about the party's electoral viability, but also that it will do so under a specific faction.

Theresa May’s own ascension is illustrative here. She became Conservative leader partly for want of anything better: the referendum defeat brought the premiership of David Cameron to an abrupt end, and alongside it destroyed the hopes of his preferred successor, George Osborne. Division between the two senior Vote Leave candidates, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, detonated the campaigns of both men, leaving the relatively inexperienced Andrea Leadsom between May and the leadership.

Her elevation is a perfect example of how, if you have enough qualified female candidates floating around, eventually one will get through. Had May done something foolish, Leadsom might have become prime minister instead. Her leadership was the product of a political argument she herself advanced in her role setting up Women2Win: that the presence of viable women candidates at entry-level, in this case parliament, and a willingness to promote them by the organisation’s leader, in this case Cameron, leads to women taking the top jobs sooner or later.

Frankly, the Conservatives have done a much better job not only of recruiting ethnic minority MPs in recent years, but doing so in a more “faction-blind” way. If I told you that the next Labour leader is going to be a British person from the Indian subcontinent, you would be able to make fairly specific predictions about what the political trajectory of Labour would be, simply because the pool of available candidates fitting that description is smaller.

But if I told you that the next Conservative leader would fit that description, well, it could mean anything: it could mean the Tory party had been spooked into action and gone for the candidate best placed to neutralise Keir Starmer’s strengths (Rishi Sunak); it could mean the Conservatives had grown tired of Johnson’s heresies and gone back to a more authentically Thatcherite approach (Sajid Javid); it could mean they had opted to double down on the Johnson approach (Priti Patel). Or it could mean that an implosion at the top of the party had left someone plausible enough as the last secretary of state standing (Alok Sharma).

This dynamic is also true of black British politicians in both parties. There are simply more available candidates, regardless of faction or ideological tendency, from a black British background in the Conservative Party. We don’t have to make a particularly bold prediction about that party’s ideological or political trajectory to predict it will elect a black person as leader – we do in the case of Labour.

Why the specificity of British and African? Well, because as the Runnymede Trust has shown, the Conservatives’ in-roads among black voters are strongest among black Brits whose parents or grandparents have come from Africa, as opposed to those whose parents or grandparents have come from the Caribbean, and your ability to recruit talent is inextricably tied to your appeal among that group. We can see this in the area where Labour has racked up many more firsts than the Conservatives – LGBT representation.

All this underlines why I think the Conservatives are likely to hit this particular first: because an organisation’s ability to succeed on diversity is inextricably linked to its overall organisational health. 

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.

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