OPINION - The Tories have left Labour in the dust on diversity

·4-min read
Harris Bokhari
Harris Bokhari

Will posterity see Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister that paved the way for the first ever ethnic minority leader of this country?

Johnson’s replacement will be elected from a shortlist of Conservative MPs, half of which are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The list includes a former refugee in Nadhim Zahawi, as well as other children of immigrants. There is a rich diversity of faith, with Rishi Sunak a practising Hindu, Suella Braverman a devout Buddhist, Tom Tugendhat who describes himself as “Jew-ish”. There are also four women running, including the first black female candidate in Kemi Badenoch. We could very well see our third Conservative female leader.

What makes this even more astonishing is the Conservative Party membership who will decide are majority white, older voters - people who may unfairly be considered less progressive.

If we go back to 1987 the first four ethnically diverse MPs were from the Labour Party. All women and all BAME shortlists led to massive changes within Labour, and by the time Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister the party reflected a modern and diverse Britain. The Labour Party knew diversity was important and seemingly nurtured and promoted people based on talent, with Valerie Amos becoming the first ethnic minority woman and Sadiq Khan the first Muslim to serve in Cabinet.

But despite these successes the Labour Party has still failed to ever select a woman leader and no ethnic minority has ever been close to being selected leader – and this is from a membership which is younger and more diverse than the Conservatives.

So why do we see this disparity between the two main parliamentary parties when it comes to ethnic minorities at the top? This trend mirrors an increase in ethnic minority voters for the Conservative Party as they seep away from Labour.

The Conservative Party has promoted itself as the party of aspiration, hard work, family values – all things that immigrant communities cherish. While these same communities will have been naturally Labour thirty or forty years ago – with a new generation of voters, the narrative of the Conservatives seems to be winning out. It makes sense then that talented aspiring politicians from ethnically diverse communities will be looking for advancement in an organisation like the Conservative Party rather than a Labour Party that perhaps they feel took their votes and support for granted.

Of course there are also process and organisational reasons for this. The current Conservative Party machinery is easier to navigate, it is better at identifying talent and promoting them – while the Labour Party seems to be riven with factionalism with a number of sitting Labour MPs having to fight to be selected again to run in the next generation election.

Another aspect is also the approach to equality and diversity, The Conservative approach seems to be very much of one that says "we don’t care what your background is, we care about how competent you are – and we will not give you special treatment if you’re from any particular community". This mentality seems to attract that same hard-working aspirational young diverse talent, who don’t want to exceptionalised or given any favours – they just want fairness.

One thing the Labour Party needs to learn, is none of the diverse Conservative candidates are running on the platform of being the first ethnic minority Prime Minister, they are running on their policies and agenda. They just happen to be from minority backgrounds. A mistake previous women candidates may have made in the Labour Leadership campaigns – was tapping into identity politics - as the voting public want to elect people based on what they believe over where they came from.

My work with youth charities has shown me that having role models for young people, who look like them and come from the same background can be transformative – developing an “if they can do it, so can we” attitude. Whatever your political affiliations having a diverse list of people to choose from for our future Prime Minister can only be a good thing and our country is only stronger for it and all our parties need to keep on working harder to ensure their leadership reflect the country they seek to serve.

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